The Great Fire
Shirley Hazzard
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The Great Fire

Shirley Hazzard
336 pages
July 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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It isnít difficult to compare Margaret Mitchellís classic Gone with the Wind with Shirley Hazzardís latest opus, The Great Fire. Both provide the reader with a breathtaking look at love in an era mauled by war and social decline. For Wind, it was the devastating Civil War; in Fire, the traumatic repercussions of World War II are used as a backdrop. And yet, as both writers so eloquently put it, not even the burden of battle could break the bonds of innocent love. This is evident in Hazzardís latest, an instant classic two decades in the making. Since her critically-acclaimed Transit of Venus hit bookstores twenty-odd years ago, Hazzardís literary approach to the human condition has been missing in a genre she practically redefined. Now, with Fire, she details the art of love and its many splinters, reminding us all why she is one of todayís best writers.

Hazzard has designed a caliber protagonist in Aldred Leith, a battered WWII hero who represents the masculine ideology of man; his suffering under the exquisite weight of a forbidden love only magnifies his presence in the novel. After arriving in post-war Japan, Leith, the son of a famous novelist, starts writing his book about war and its effect on societies. While there, he is pulled into the lives of the young Driscolls. The beautiful teenager, Helen, immediately catches his eye, and Ben, her terminally ill brother, his interest. As his stay in Kure, Japan, progresses, Aldred finds himself falling for the insightful young woman. Meanwhile, his fondness for Ben and his handicapped state strengthens his will to remain in Japan. The children, whose thirst for literature and knowledge reflect Aldredís own interests, are the ignored products of an Australian army major and his disillusioned wife.

As the days pass, Aldredís passion for Helen blossoms, and he is again reminded of their vast difference in age. But love, they say, has no boundaries. This is especially true in The Great Fire. Aldred continues to pursue his interest in Helen but is deterred when he hears from Peter Exely, a close friend and fellow WWII survivor. Exely, stationed in Hong Kong as a war criminal interrogator, is questioning his role in life and yearns for the comfort of his old friend. As Aldredís foil character, he strives to become an art historian but is incapable of breaking from his current profession. It isnít until his pursuits take a toll on his life that his connection with Aldred, and with the outside world, come into focus. While visiting Exely, Ben, meanwhile, falls ill. The sudden death of a family member also tugs at Aldredís heart. Thankfully, he has Helenís love to keep him on course. Soon, Aldred must find a way to return to her open arms and live out a life of love and comfort before society finally breaks him apart.

In Fire, Hazzard succeeds in detailing the sordid lives of lovers and friends living in the shadows of WWII. Her characters are well drawn, her passion deeply embedded in every metaphor, and her narrative structure Ė though confusing at times Ė is most often fluent. The Great Fire, a title which reflects not only the perils of war but the burning desire of a blossoming love, is as provocative as it is thorough. Though its goal is simple, its meaning is profound: love does conquer all.

Reading Fire is an arduous task if one is not use to absorbing rich text layered with symbolism. In fact, one does not know the extent to which literature can dazzle until they have read the lines emptied from Hazzardís inquisitive mind. With her far-reaching terminology and intricate dialogue, itís easy to understand why The Great Fire was a National Book Award winner. And though it ends rather abruptly, the story still packs enough panache to hammer the point home. Frankly, my dear, The Great Fire is one book you will give a damn about.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Nicholas Addison Thomas, 2005

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