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the great fire

4 november 2019

I don't think I'd ever heard of The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard's 2003 novel, till I saw it on a well-curated shelf of National-Book-Award-winning fiction at the Central Arkansas Library System's used-book store in Little Rock last week. On a road trip and in danger of exhausting my book supply, I bought The Great Fire and am very glad I did.

The Great Fire is both leisurely and suspenseful. The protagonist is Aldred Leith, an English hero of the second world war who has not been able to detach himself from the army. He has accepted an unorthodox assignment to travel the Far East, writing a sort of ethnography/travelogue, documenting conditions in the postwar period. 1947 finds Leith near Hiroshima, being oriented to Japan by a dying English spy. "Ginger," who dies on page 21, casts a long shadow across the rest of the novel. In particular, he's told Leith to watch out for an Australian family named Driscoll, who are the provisional authority in the place where Leith has been billeted. Not only is Brigadier Driscoll a cad, but his children have a weird magnetic appeal that one might be better off resisting.

Driscoll's son Ben is dying of an obscure wasting disease. Driscoll's daughter Helen, just turning 17, is at once the object of Leith's obsessive gaze. Applying the handy half-your-age-plus-seven rule leaves the early-thirties Leith still with several years to go before dating Helen would seem anything but creepy. And he knows it's a creepy proposition. But they soon fall intensely in love, and creepy be damned.

Helen and Leith do not immediately become lovers, though, and despite the old-fashioned quality of that reticence, it rings true enough. Even for the 1940s they are a little surprised at their own forbearance. They wait to consummate their relationship in part because Helen will never leave her brother while he lives, but in part too because Leith has had such relationships before. From the other perspective: his first lover, Aurora, was twice his age. Though that relationship ended placidly enough (with the two remaining friends and Aurora becoming Leith's own father's mistress), the experience left him with something to gauge his current infatuation by. Most of the novel becomes the working-out of the problem of how to get Helen and Leith together, despite obstacles of age, distance, culture, and family opposition.

A subplot involves an Australian lawyer named Peter Exley, who works for a war-crimes commission in Hong Kong. Unlucky in love, not sure of much in life except that he does not want to return to Australia and the family law practice, Exley is Leith's best friend, a contrast and counterpart to the writer. Exley also participates in the novel's sobering dynamic of disability and loss. He contracts polio after trying to help a child, and spirals into debility, paralleling Ben Driscoll. The novel has begun with Ginger's death, and all these collapses serve to heighten the intense life and youth of Aldred and Helen.

In short, The Great Fire is a lyrical love story set in the aftermath of the second world war, with its displaced people and their unprocessed freight of trauma. In this it recalls Michael Ondaatje's English Patient, though The English Patient is somewhat more magical-realist, its settings and characters stranger. It's a lovely minor genre of the English-language novel.

Hazzard's novel takes its characters only briefly, in transit, through her native Australia. Most of it is set in Japan, Hong Kong, England, and New Zealand, places that Hazzard herself lived in the era the book is set in. She was about Helen Driscoll's age in 1947, and moved, like Helen, from Hong Kong to New Zealand with her diplomatic family. She would later move to New York, writing a few novels over many decades, as well as three memoirs. The Great Fire is considered her masterpiece, and it is a very absorbing novel, the kind one can really dwell in for a while. I have already staked out a few more Hazzard novels to read, and I hope to report on them here.

Hazzard, Shirley. The Great Fire. 2003. New York: Picador [Farrar], 2004. PR 9619.3 .H369G74