The Great Fire

The year is 1947, and Aldred Leith, a decorated and disillusioned veteran of the second Great War, is traveling through Occupied Japan, documenting what he can of a way of life that is rapidly vanishing. In Britain, his ex-wife is remarrying, his novelist father is dying, his countrymen are still starving and stumbling over the remains of their bomb shelters. A world away, Aldred is no more present within himself, convinced as he is of both the validity and the futility of his work. Until he meets Benedict and Helen, Australian brother and sister, brilliant, sensitive, and tragically vulnerable to Benedict’s terminal illness and their autocratic parents. Ben’s life, as it slowly ebbs in this forgotten outpost of a conquered land, is like flint to Aldred’s soul; devoting himself to the young man and his care-giving sister, he soon is tied irrevocably to their futures. “Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he had discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her.” But governments and social mores and families will stand between them.

Thus, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire is a love story of the kind that traverses continents with faint hope and great longing, the kind in which the characters must rescue each other to meet their fates. It is also the kind that drives the reader forward anxious to know the ending while yet hating that it will end. The narrative is experienced as a series of impressions precisely and sensitively rendered; dreamlike, in the way that a single voice or scent can communicate instantly and with more clarity than a panoramic description. Hazzard’s scenes are cinematic, her dialogue thrilling, her metaphors surprising, her characters deeply complex and authentically human.

Hazzard won the National Book Award in 2003 for The Great Fire, twenty years after publishing her previous novel, The Transit of Venus, which had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. If she is going to publish once every twenty years, may she live to be 300! I read this for my National Book Award 60th Anniversary Mini-Challenge because I already owned a copy, having discovered one at, of all places, a dollar store. After finishing it, I immediately put The Transit of Venus on my list and this week discovered a brand new copy of it at a library book sale, again for $1! If it is half as good, I shall be satisfied; The Great Fire is now among my top 12 favorite novels.

To introduce you to the beauty of her prose, I quote here a few favorite passages with just of bit of context.

Leith’s arrival at the Japanese outpost:

They were near the waterfront now, following the bed of some derelict subsidiary railway. The joltings might have smashed a rib cage. You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands. The foreground reality, a wartime shambles of a harbour with its capsized shipping, was visible enough, and could, in that year, have been almost anywhere on earth…
…He heaved his kit bag out on the flagstones, sprang to the wet ledge, and waved off the boat. Stood a moment on the paved brink, scarcely thinking; only breathing the night and its black lappings.

Later that night in his new room:

Leith’s sole familiar was the heavy canvas bag that, resting by his feet as he sat on the bed, took on with its worn and weighted fellowship, the speckled contour of an old dog: barrel-bodied, obedient.

Before a difficult farewell:

Then Helen came, in her dress of small flowers; bright hair brushed back behind black ribbon; thin hands turned, by nervousness, to starfish. Feet hasty in pale shoes. Aldred got up.

After a near-miss on a bombed out runway:

It could easily, as Peter had assumed, have been himself. After wartime escapes, he’d expected better from peace.

In China on business, meeting up with a soldier friend doing similar work:

The Hong Kong evening, with air like broth, was charged with Asia’s unapologetic smells. Leith walked with Exley to a low-roofed tavern on the docks. Peter had discovered the place on his wanderings: the entry, open to the street, gave on the waterfront. There was the hot, stark electric bulb, supplemented by spirit lamps whose mild reek was agreeable. The plain front room just held the two men, the couple who served them, and the furnishings—quite as if it had been composed around them.

Leith’s friend, experiencing a similar post-war crisis of his own:

Exley felt his existence stirring in its coma—scarcely destiny, but a tremor of change.

Returning to England, where he’d grown up, for the first time since war’s end:

Leith told her how he had walked through London as through Pompeii.

“You’ve seen so much destruction, surely, elsewhere.”

“This is the demolition of my own experience.”

Gorgeous, isn’t it?  Do read this one!

27. August 2009 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 3 comments