Review by Martha Anne Toll
I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.
Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:
Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.
And Aldred, struggling to regroup:
In that spring of 1947, Leith was thirty-two years old. He did not consider himself young. Like others of his generation, had perhaps never quite done so, being born into knowledge of the Great War…. From the university where he did well and made friends, he had strolled forth distinctive. Then came the forced march of the resumed war. After that, there was no doubling back to recover one’s youth or take up the slack. In the wake of so much death, the necessity to assemble life became both urgent and oppressive.
The world has burnt down and Major Leith has seen too much. Caen, after it was destroyed in 1944; the slaughter of open warfare. Arriving in Occupied Japan, Leith couldn’t be farther from England, which no longer feels like home. He’s lost a marriage–a casualty of distance and war, and the unbridgeable gulf between soldier and civilian.
Leith moves into a compound inhabited by an Australian medical administrator and his family, the Driscolls. The Driscolls are harsh and neglectful parents. Young Benedict, thoroughly self-aware, is dying of a rare, degenerative disease–Friedrich’s ataxia. His life is lit by books, and by his sister Helen. Deracinated and battle-scarred, Leith finds himself drawn into the siblings’ orbit, the gravitational pull a shared and capacious intellectual curiosity, and families where love is missing from the regular places.
Hazzard was already an acclaimed writer when she wrote The Great Fire. In addition to her stories in the New Yorker, she had published several novels and short story collections, and two works of nonfiction, including a scathing indictment of the United Nations where she worked during the 1950s: Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-destruction of the United Nations (1973). An Australian by birth, she ended her formal education when her family moved to Hong Kong. In the Paris Review, Hazzard recalled more compelling schooling: “What miraculously happened for me was a greater education, at sixteen, when I went to work, in 1947, for the Special Operations branch of British Intelligence there. The literary atmosphere of that office–British officers, linguists, young veterans who were almost innately charged with literary reference–was joyful.… When I was snatched from that Eden, late in 1948, I was equipped through later sorrows with the knowledge of a companionship that could not be taken from me.”
That girl, wise beyond her years, thrust into history’s seething cauldron, is at The Great Fire’s core. Leith falls deeply and impossibly in love with Helen Driscoll and by extension with her dying brother; the parents plotting to send their children continents away; fifteen years gaping between Aldred, a mature man, and Helen, not yet a woman.
He knew that if they were to meet in his room, he would take her to his bed. He knew that, however many times, they walked about the hills and dales, this would ultimately occur.
It appeared to him that, in his scruples and forebodings, he was assuming the role of apprehensive maiden; while the girl became the embodiment of loving impulse.
The story unfolds, simultaneously urgent and graciously paced, Leith’s friendship with war crimes prosecutor Peter Exley layered in; the tectonic movements in East Asia rumbling in the background. Some might call Hazzard’s elegant, meticulously crafted style unfashionable; I call it a rare gift.
How does The Great Fire end? I envy you finding out. Read it for the first time, each sentence a treasure, the whole an exquisitely rendered, panoramic love story.
Martha Anne Toll’s fiction has appeared in the Yale Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, Wild: A Quarterly; her book commentaries in NPR, The Millions, Narrative, Tin House blog, The Nervous Breakdown, and Washington Independent Review of Books. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Visit her at www.marthaannetoll.com; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.