The great fire

by Shirley Hazzard

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.


In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the center of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier find that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.

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What makes The Great Fire such a special novel is the lush and palpable desire present in so many of its pages, desire not just for physical consummation but for human connection and hope, made all the more meaningful by the backdrop of the cruelty and violence of war.

User reviews

LibraryThing member atheist_goat
An English soldier in Japan, and then England, soon after the end of WWII. (The fire of the title refers to Hiroshima, the Blitz, and love.) He falls in love with a seventeen-year-old girl who acts about twelve (he is thirty-three) and they speak to each other in this overwrought poetry that even
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as poetry would be too much and as dialogue is nonsensical. I wanted desperately to believe that Hazzard didn't like these two lovers any more than I did, and was making a point about their selfishness, but at the end it became very clear that this was supposed to be An Incredibly Touching Love Story. Gag.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
In this exceptional story, Shirley Hazzard gives us the eternal story of Aldred and Helen, thrown together in the chaotic and threatening aftermath of the Second World War. He's a major in the British Army who re-upped at war's end to study the effects of war on old cultures. She is the daughter of
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horrid and ambitious parents and has a terminally ill brother to whom she is devoted. She's loyal, erudite, fifteen years Aldred's junior, and falls unalterably in love with him. War's fortunes and the designs of empires unfortunately separate them and put an entire world between them - he is sent back the the U.K., and Helen goes with her family to her father's new posting in New Zealand.

There are several Great Fires here. One is World War II itself, and one is specifically the bombing of Hiroshima. Another is Aldred and Helen's love. Ms. Hazzard's prose comes across as reserved and cautionary, but is deeply touched by what we witness. The intellect and the heart are both deep, and deeply affected. Our author inspires awe at our renewed understanding of the power of language.

Our hero Aldred is a very virtuous man. He hides his severe wounds,which are physical as well as emotional. He is aghast in the wake of war and weary in the role of occupier (his superiors assign him to a study of Hiroshima after The Bomb). His friends and colleagues see it, too: one potential rival for Helen's heart gives up the field when he comes to know Aldred better.

Besides a very memorable love story, this is also the story of civilization and hope surviving cataclysm. Helen's beloved brother dies, and the cataclysm becomes close and personal. Aldred helps people in the U.K. - our author never flinches in her willingness to protray sympathetic characters - minor heroes - of either sex or any age. (The secondary characters would make a very fertile area of study.)

I honor Ms. Hazzard. I recommend this piece in the highest terms possible. Would that she produced fiction more often - I will definitely be taking up her other novels. Wow.
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LibraryThing member BlackSheepDances
This is a really amazing book, in what it doesn't say as much as for what it does! For one thing, Hazzard is a master at characterization, and she follows the rule "show, don't tell" perfectly. I can't even remember a physical description of either main character, but I feel like I'd know them
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anywhere based on the perceived characteristics from their actions and conversations. It's unusual that she has two main protagonists, one only slightly less important than the other. She bounces between the two seamlessly (even though my editor said it was a no-no, but of course, I'm not nearly as talented).

Most of the novel revolves around China and Japan post WWII, and relates to the aftermath of Hiroshima. It's not a history book, but you do get a feel for people and places and that time.

The scope of the novel is huge, and at times I wished she would have gone back and explained some of the matters that were inferred to but never resolved. There was a lot of foreshadowing of things that never happened, which was annoying at times.

One main character, Aldred, is really fascinating in that he appears to be the world's most boring yet alluring man. He spends most of his time describing his many travels to two young children and in reality, that would probably be obnoxious. But here it works, for many reasons (no spoilers!). Nearing the end, however, I was kind of sick of him. He seemed a bit too magnanimous and "ideal".

In all, this was an epic novel that I looked forward to reading each day. I would suggest having a map at hand before reading, just to get a feel for his travels.
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LibraryThing member whirled
Shirley Hazzard and her late husband were friends with Graham Greene, and I can see shades of the latter's work in The Great Fire. I don't mean to suggest Hazzard's style is derivative, merely that she shares his talent for describing characters thrown into chaotic situations overseas. For me the
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scenes of foreign people and places were more interesting than Leith's unconsummated love affair; I wanted more of them. I liked the writing very much though, and I will return to this author.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
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
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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.

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.

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LibraryThing member LisaMorr
Beautifully written novel about a soldier after WWII. A decorated veteran, Aldred Leith 'walked' across China in the two years after the war to document a China that would be forever changed by the Chinese Civil War. He then arrives in Japan to survey the aftermath of Hiroshima, where he meets an
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Australian military family and falls in love with the 17-yr old daughter. The novel brilliantly describes what it must have been like to travel across the world during that time - the protagonist goes to Japan, Hong Kong, the UK and New Zealand.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
An astonishing sojourn, I would have edited the final quarter to a degree, but it is an amazing portal.
LibraryThing member Gary10
Slow building, elegantly written taole of a British solider in Japan following World War II. Turns into a love story between the soldier and a young girl displaced by the War. Ultimately satisfying and very well written.
LibraryThing member LynnB
The Great Fire is the story of Aldred Leith, a soldier sent to study the after effects of the bombing of Hiroshima. He connects with other British and Australian citizens during his time in Asia, notably with the teenaged Helen, with whom he falls in love.

I didn't like the main character, Aldred.
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He was snobbish, too perfect and, to be honest, not that interesting. He might have been interesting if he'd been written in a more realistic way. His love, Helen, was also written as too perfect to be interesting.

In all, this was too much like a Harlequin romance plot for my liking, with the young heroine devoted to her dying brother, the true and, for a long time, chaste love..often from afar and the moody atmosphere of post-war Asia.

The writing was lyrical, the plot well executed (if you like that kind of story) but the characters were too weak to hold the book together.
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LibraryThing member celerydog
Irritating protagonist, book saved by glorious prose, but not a great read overall.
LibraryThing member TheWasp
Well written story set in japan at the end of WW2. The main character is documenting the aftermath of the war when while staying with an australian diplomat, he is conflicted by feelings for the much younger 17 year old daughter.
LibraryThing member labfs39
The Great Fire is a novel set in the aftermath of World War II. Aldred Leith is a thirty-two year old British officer, who is writing a book about the destruction in China and Japan and initial rebuilding efforts. Severely wounded in the European fighting, Leith has recovered sufficiently to spend
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months traipsing across China and is now entering Japan. There he takes quarters on the grounds of the Driscoll compound and soon befriends the young Driscoll's, Ben and Helen. Intelligent and innocent, the adolescents represent both the culture of the past and the hope for the future.

Despite having been written in 2003, the novel feels like a novel of an earlier time. Frocks, gentlemen callers, and afternoons spent reading poetry make much of the action seem disembodied from the setting. Although the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are alluded to, they are never discussed. The Japanese are servants only, and there is little interaction with them, despite Leith speaking the language. Most of the action centers around the love affair between Leith and Helen, made scandalous by the fifteen year age difference. There was great potential for a book set in this time and place, but the author focuses on the domesticity of a European love story instead.
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LibraryThing member idyll
Although I loved 'Transit of Venus', and still love Hazzard's language, she didn't quite know what to do with herself here. There are more loose ends than a yarn factory, and endless painfully flatlined passages. After awhile, it's hard to pay attention because you know that she's not going to USE
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these characters, settings, ideas. She's just moving through them, as if she were a passenger on a worldwide train. It has a listless feeling, except where the plot bursts out, (one always feels) against her will.
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LibraryThing member andystardust
I enjoyed this novel a lot, not the least for reading it while living through another time when mass trauma seems to manifest itself everywhere and there is a constant awareness that things are changing, in my case in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and protest against police brutality and
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systemic racism. It was comforting, in an odd way, to read about characters making their way through the wreckage of world war, and choosing a path toward happiness.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
In a vague but overwhelming postwar depression studded with images of physical acedia, injury, and disease the characters haltingly seek to escape (to the past or the future?) via very romantic love. This won the National Book Award, and was nominated for my own Stage IV Oy Vey Award, but was too
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well-written to make the shortlist.
The author writes in sentences that sometimes seem to have holes in them. I first thought that this was some kind of synecdoche, but it isn’t. Her writing is abstract, oblique, and peppered with poetic or odd word choices; adjectives as nouns, etc. She also likes to occasionally give her punctuation a strenuous work-out:

By now, misery would have circulated: the dead would be named, the relatives informed; existences derailed.

Near the book's slowly approaching ending, a character comments,

"What a cruel story. Does everyone have a cruel story?”.

They certainly do here, although it sometimes seems as though they both exaggerate and cherish it. I sometimes felt like the family practitioner who dealt with various mental disorders by slapping his patients and saying, Get a hold of yourself, man!
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
I am trying not to be over-influenced by the learned voices on the cover lauding this book as a work of genius because I thought it was as dull as ditchwater. I think it’s fiction aimed at people who read books on a higher plane, where realistic dialogue is not required, and indeed nothing needs
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to happen from one page to the next. One can simply sit back and admire a well turned metaphor.

The post-war Japan setting seemed interesting enough, and I was hoping it would have some educational value, but what we got instead was a lukewarm love story in which a guy takes a fancy to a girl practically half his age (anyone else find that distinctly icky?) despite hardly knowing eachother, and conduct a stiff courtship described by a narrative voice reminiscent of the Pathe Newsreel. There was nothing to hook the reader, no handholds, nothing. I really didn’t like it - maybe that makes me a literary philistine, but so be it.
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LibraryThing member eronston
This novel takes place after the conclusion of the Second World War. The protagonist (who was a minor hero in the British army) has just spent two years traveling around China, gathering data to write a book. He comes to Japan after his journey and meets Ben and Helen, two Austrailian youths (they
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are brother and sister). Ben has a degenerative illness and is nearing death. Helen is his primary caretaker, and both brother and sister are well-read and well-spoken; the siblings create an oasis from the conformity of the military that the protagonist, Leith, indulges in. Leith and Helen fall in love, despite the differences in their ages, the disapproval of Helen's parents, and other factors. The remainder of the novel describes primarily how Leith and Helen function in the aftermath of the war and how they deal with the obstacles and other relationships in their lives so that they can be together.

Although I suppose the romace between Helen and Leith is the plot-driving force of the novel, there really isn't any discernible action. I did not get a good feel as to why the two characters fell in love (I was actually suspecting that by the end one or both characters would decide that their relationship was a brief flame that must be extinguished due to circumstances). Although I think the plot was lacking, the author's writing style was intersting and lovely. It took me a little while to become accustomed to her voice (it switches from first to third person regularly and sometimes, mid-sentence), but I wound up loving it - it caught the kind of ethereal beauty of the environment and the characters. Hazzard uses a sort of stream-of-conciousness style, but not so very vague or unstructured as that term implies. I think Hazzard did a great job with the characterization of Leith but left us intrigued about the other characters - we needed more (especially Helen, although she may have been left purposefully vague because the character was young and unformed as yet, and also to give a sense of the aura that enraptured Leith).

I was disappointed in the novel - I thought it was building to some sort of action or climax, and I did not feel that it achieved that (although this could be just my reading-need for a climax and not a fault of the novel). I think Hazzard spent quite a bit of time on other characters (Peter Exley especially) but did not integrate them in the context of the novel or provide resolution within the frame of the story.

Overall, extremely and interestingly well-written; I would have liked to see a bit more plot depth.
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LibraryThing member Gypsy_Boy
I have read Hazzard’s Great Fire and, sadly, do not share Liam’s enthusiasm. First and foremost, I did not think that either Aldred Leith or Helen Driscoll, the two major characters, was particularly well-drawn or fleshed out. I found the story more about the relationship than about two
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individuals. In addition, I was surprised that I didn’t find either one of them particularly sympathetic, certainly not as much as, for example, as Peter Exley, a major character whom Hazzard essentially drops entirely when his story seems to get in her way. Her sudden and virtually total dispensation with this character I found inexplicable. Just as startling is her dropping of Ben, another central character for at least the first half of the novel. Not only is he essentially dropped, he is disposed of late in the book in a matter of a few quick sentences.
Hazzard spends little time drawing minor characters. Thus, Helen's parents barely register; they occupy one very early scene and then become stick figures, as are virtually all of the minor characters, with a couple noteworthy exceptions. Minor characters can be minor and yet well-drawn, with depth, fullness, and even a modicum of complexity. That simply wasn’t the case with Great Fire.
I thought the last chapters on Leith in England and Helen in NZ were overlong and added little to either the characters or the plot or even to Hazzard’s theme(s). I am also baffled that Hazzard reintroduces a very minor character (Raimonda Mancini) for all of a paragraph. Moreover, the introduction of so many new characters toward the end—Aurora Searle and an entire cast of people in NZ—felt like padding: it was beside the point, unnecessary to the plot or the theme(s), and ultimately more distracting than anything else. These chapters added virtually nothing to the picture we already had of Leith and Helen.
I also found most of the characters to be so self-involved that I honestly had trouble accepting them as real or as sympathetic. Yes, we are all self-involved to a degree. But not so deeply and constantly as the characters here are. Helen also seemed to me to be far too “wise” for her age. Few 18-year-old women talk or think as she does. Hell, few 28-year-olds, for that matter. Why does it bother me? Because, in the end, I found it very challenging to consider her a believable character.
The “tone” of so many conversations also seemed off: most people’s conversations do not wax philosophic all the time. Sometimes, sure. But virtually all the time? Angst, world-weariness, metaphysical speculation are constants here. Moreover, everyone speaks in the same voice: well-spoken, “literate” and not much like “real” people—or maybe I should say not the people I know. (Maybe that should be a lesson to me.) There is virtually no distinguishing one character from another: they all have the same tone, the same literate vocabulary, regardless of background, interests, or position.
All this said, I still think Hazzard tells a (mostly) interesting story and her themes are worthwhile and (mostly) well set out. She is a good writer—though I for one found her stylistic tics (sentences without subjects, sentence fragments) offputting. Having poked around a bit, I recognize that this book is highly regarded, so take my criticisms with a grain (or more) of salt. No doubt others (maybe most) will disagree. But that's my take.
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