Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Review by W. R. Greer
I approached The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard with anticipation. I knew it had won the National Book Award for fiction, and I'd read many reviews praising it as an expertly-written account of the aftermath of war and one couple's search for love during the world's recovery from the evil it had wrought just a few years before. I wish I could say that I found this a thrilling or even a contemplative book, but the truth is that I struggled with this book from the start. When I was done, I heaved a sigh of relief, not from a satisfying denouement, but from a weariness of finally completing my reading of it.
The story within The Great Fire is a simple one. It's set a few years after the end of World War II. Aldred Leith, a decorated British officer and war hero in his mid-30s has just walked across China in an attempt to document the effects of the war on that country. He's come to Kure, Japan, near Hiroshima, to study the effects of the atomic bomb. The administrator there is a dictatorial Australian officer, Barry Driscoll, who, along with his wife, is intensely disliked and avoided by the other military personnel. The Driscolls have two of their children with them, 20-year old Benedict and 17-year old Helen. Benedict has been sick with a slowly debilitating disease most of his life. Helen has nursed him and been his companion for so long that the two are almost inseparable. They've traveled the world alone, catching up to their parents on their new assignment after being alone in Europe and on a long sea crossing. The two are the antithesis of their parents: bright, polite, and charming. When Leith is first introduced to Helen by her parents, he comments on the beauty of her hand that shook his.
"Thank you," she said. The words must have been for Leith. Her voice had that lightness, not quite of childhood, that precedes female experience. Since love, like influenza, leaves a huskiness. She walked off composedly enough, but, as the man saw, ran the last steps to her brother's side.
Leith is a man of quiet reflection, tending to keep to himself rather than partaking of the company of others. He is so enamored with the young siblings, with their youthful exuberance at gaining and sharing thoughts and knowledge, that he finds himself constantly drawn to them. They ask about his past, his wartime experiences, and as he relates them, he comes to understand how they've helped form the man he's become. Their brightness shines into the dreariness of his past, both with his distant parents and the death and destruction of the war. Helen, with her purity, innocence, and beauty draws his heart out as well. Leith is aware of the issues provided by her age and maintains the proper propriety with her, even when he longs to have more. This building affection and longing between Leith and Helen is the central narrative that drives the plot in this novel.
Other characters are brought into the story, some for a few paragraphs at a time, some for several chapters. Peter Exley is an Australian that Leith has known since before the war. At one point during the war Leith saved his life and they spent time together in a prisoner of war camp. Exley is stationed in Hong Kong where he prosecutes war crimes. The war has left Exley more broken than Leith and he struggles to find meaning and happiness in his life. He shares a room with a man named Rysom who often woke from nightmares during the night.
On his cot at the barracks Exley realized how much of his soldiering had been spent flat on his back, waiting for war. War had provided a semblance of purpose, reinforced by danger. Danger had been switched off like a stage light, leaving the drab scenery. And there they were at the barracks, he and Rysom, two years into peace and bored to death by it. Each must scratch around now for some kind of compromise and call it destiny.
Shirley Hazzard moves The Great Fire from one end of the earth to the other, partly through stories of Leith's past and partly through movements through the present tense of the story. Watching through the characters' eyes and the author's prose, England, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand all come to life, even when the life there is subdued or dreary. The strength of this book is in its characterization of the people and places they inhabit. Let there be no doubt as to the literary abilities of Shirley Hazzard. She creates a sense of place and atmosphere that instantly transports the reader to any setting, with complete understanding of the subtleties that gives the scene its nuance and character. Her rendering of each character, numbed and striving to understand their lives amid the world burnt almost to the ground during the war, rings true with the personal pain and loss they each carry. With the international cast of characters and settings all over the world, Shirley Hazzard has captured the magnitude of the conflict, giving the true proportions of a worldwide war that consumed everything in its path.
With all that said, the book contains a fatal flaw, at least for me. Despite the brilliant prose that creates sympathetic characters against the backdrop of a world torn asunder by the evil of man, this story moves at a snail's pace. The only real drama in the novel is the burgeoning love between Leith and Helen and the obstacles of her age and parents that might preclude it from being fulfilled. For parts of this book, nothing happens at all. A few scenes here and there serve to make some small insight about a character, or to show some aspect of life within the confines of the postwar society. Descriptions of clothing and scenery, while doing expertly in their role of immersing the reader in the setting, become tiresome in the absence of drama and suspense.
The characters, for the most part, suffer from a sameness of purpose and propriety. There is no evil here, beyond the war that has scarred them all and perhaps the rawness and irritability of the Driscoll parents' arrogance and pettiness. Perhaps it's a reflection of the times and behavior of proper gentlemen and ladies from the British commonwealth in the late 1940s, but their detached approach to their personal interactions and the events around them leaves the story with a detached feeling also. Shirley Hazzard also writes in a style that exacerbates this detachment. She often reverts to pronouns and indirect references that force a rereading of the last paragraph or two to understand who is talking or being referred to. She drops events, items, and places into the story with no explanation of them. We never learn the stories behind important facts about the characters' pasts. References are made that are never explained.
All this makes The Great Fire an easy book to put down, and difficult to read at times. Ultimately, there's little invested in the characters besides some gentle interest as to how each of their stories would play out. The plot, whether it be the love story or the different reactions by each character to the postwar world, is slight and never consuming. Others may be able to look past these shortcomings and indulge themselves in the fine literary qualities presented in this novel, and enjoy it much more than I did. For me, it was like going to a movie or a play where the scenery was perfectly captured, the costumes entertaining and optimally chosen for each character, and the acting brilliant, except they forgot to wrap it around an engaging story. Perhaps sitting back and enjoying the presentation can be an enjoyable experience, if you can live without the story. The Great Fire, despite its praise and award, was a disappointing book because of its inability to foster much interest in the lives of the people within it.
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