Reviewed by Leigh Infield
Like the brilliant novel that preceded it, The Great Fire, demonstrates the beauty of language and psychological insights that earned Australian-born author, Shirley Hazzard, worldwide acclaim. While The Great Fire was written twenty-three years after her award-winning novel, The Transit of Venus, was published, it has the same lush descriptive style that challenges the reader to savor each sentence. Slower in pace, it opens a window on the unsettling after-effects of World War II in Asia as seen through the eyes of two men who experienced it first-hand.
The reader meets Aldred Leith, a decorated, war-injured British officer, who must reinvent his life post-war in a meaningful way. Leith’s new life is that of studying and recording the repercussions of war in both China and Hiroshima, Japan for potential publication. The title of Hazzard’s book refers to the sweeping aftermath of the war—so like the damage inflicted by a fire itself. But the author has chosen to set aside the historical background some readers might desire. This is not a novel about war, but rather a love story that slowly unfolds.
The first twenty-five pages of the novel are rich in description, but measured in character development. A train ride from one part of Japan to another opens the novel and is beautifully written. Leith remains elusive in these first pages. Next, Hazzard introduces the reader to Leith’s close friend and fellow veteran, Peter Axley, who is investigating war crimes in Hong Kong. While I was drawn to Axley, he seemed less important to the overall flow of the novel. But he serves an important purpose in the narrative as Hazzard uses his fate to underscore the seriousness of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
For this modern-day reader, the romance between Leith and the young seventeen-year-old girl whom he meets while billeted in her parents’ modern Japanese compound, is stilted and somewhat impracticable. What do they have in common? Leith is twice her age and more worldly. Helen is young, naïve, and trapped in a world she and her invalid brother have created out of necessity. It is Aldred who, like a White Knight, will rescue both from the limits of that world.
Hazzard gives us little of the romantic passion that one might expect in a novel with love at its core. More conservative readers might balk at a mature man pursuing a passionate relationship and marriage with an underage girl. And yet, such relationships do happen in this day and age. Readers may find, as I did, the characters less colorful and memorable than those in The Transit of Venus. Unlike Transit of Venus where the reader races through the last pages to find out what happens to the characters, The Great Fire moves more slowly to its ending.
Yet The Great Fire is a great read. It is the kind of book that you read leisurely, one that you appreciate for its wonderful prose—each descriptive sentence a small masterpiece. You may contemplate reading it over and over again as it’s a book that with each reading you fall in love in a new way— more patiently and thoughtfully. It’s a beautiful follow-up to her modern classic, Transit of Venus, and another winner in and of itself. Don’t miss it!~