"The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley's life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity." "Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the tomb at Hiroshima, Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith's words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith's sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted."--BOOK JACKET.
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.
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.
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.
I didn't like the main character, Aldred. 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.
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.