The Great Fire – Book Review

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain. -From The Great Fire, page 1-

Shirley Hazzard’s award winning novel, The Great Fire, follows the parallel lives of two men at the end of World War II – Peter Exley, an Australian living in China to investigate war crimes; and Aldred Leith, a Brit who has traveled to Japan near Hiroshima to record the effects of war on the survivors. Both men struggle to come to terms with life after war … and the novel explores their psyches through flashbacks of memory interspersed with their adjustment back to civilian life. Of the two, Peter is the least developed character – but nonetheless, the reader empathizes with his struggle over whether to pursue a life in music or return to toil in his father’s law firm.

Hazzard spends more time refining the character of Aldred Leith who arrives in Japan to stay with an Australian Brigadier and his family. Brigadier Driscoll and his wife are unlikeable people who have two children – Ben and Helen. Ben, at age 20, is dying from Friedreich’s Ataxia. His sister, Helen at age 17, provides the love interest for the adult Leith. The difference in their ages lends a subtle conflict to the novel. Leith’s former preoccupation with his work is gradually replaced by his obsession with Helen … and it is through this love, that he begins to understand how he will recover from the psychological effects of the war.

Hazzard’s writing is beautiful and hypnotic, yet at times ambiguous. Entering the world of her novel feels a bit like plunging into a vast and complicated art museum where everything must be slowly considered and the meaning is not always clear.  At times I felt tranquilized by Hazzard’s descriptions, such as when Leith has a memory from childhood:

Aldred shifted his chair to look at the logs. These were among earliest memories: the heavy loads dragged in out of evening air, or out of rain, to dry in the warm kitchen. The Tarpaulin spread, and the pieces brushed off roughly, one by one. Loose bark, wood dust. The kindling struck off and set aside. The child, who was himself, squatting silent on the periphery, peering into shapes, textures, colours; the mottlings and dapplings. The scrubby bark, coruscated, or the smooth angular pieces like bones. Forms arched and grooved like a lobster, or humped like a whale. Dark joints, to which foliage adhered like bay leaves in a stew. Pinecones, and a frond of pine needles still flourishing on the hacked branch. And the creatures that inched or sped or wriggled out, knowing the game was up: slugs, pale worms, tiny white grubs, scurrying busily off as if to a destination. An undulant caterpillar, and an inexorable thing with pincers. Or the slow slide of an unhoused snail – the hodmedod, as they called him here – revisiting the lichens and pigmentations and fungoid flakes that had clung to his only home – freckled growths dusted, seemingly, with cocoa; red berries, globules of white wax. Wet earthy smell, forest smell. The implements set aside; the elder Laister stern with him: “Dawn’t tooch the axe. I’m warning you.”  -From The Great Fire, page 222-

This is a slowly unfolding novel – quite literary in style and phrasing. It is a novel about love and recovery from war, about friendships and the complications of family. For those readers who enjoy a gently paced story and want to be enveloped and lost in words, this one is for you.

Recommended.