July 3, 2010


by Shirley Hazzard
326 pages, Picador

Review by Maria Bustillos

A beautiful novel, dreamy, romantic and moving, that won the author the National Book Award. Though The Great Fire is a romance, the book is wrought with taste and intelligence. Hazzard’s kind of old-fashioned refinement is so rare in modern letters as to be doubly welcome to this reader, but there is a detachment and coolness to her style that I can well imagine wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Hers is passion of the stiff-upper-lipped variety; passion that keeps itself in check, that expresses itself in lines of poetry and glances fraught with meaning.

The prose here is also unusual, idiosyncratic and some might say affected, but I found it very enjoyable. The author was born in Australia, but has lived for years in New York, England and Italy. So this is going to sound a little weird, but I believe it would be safe to say that if you enjoy Irish writers—I’m thinking of Flann O’Brien and JP Donleavy here, as well as Joyce—you’re liable to like Hazzard, whose cadences are similarly clipped, quiet and meditative, and who takes similar delight in a rich vocabulary. Here’s an example:

“The hill above the tiny town was gravid in the way of that landscape, its grassy garment stretched like soft cloth over an imagined anatomy of ancient, unremembered walls, graves, and ditches; a tumid rise, over which you might mentally pass your hand.”

Set in the period immediately after the second World War, mostly in the area near Hiroshima, the novel’s overarching theme is the impossibility, and also the absolute necessity, of negotiating a meaningful personal life in the face of human suffering, grief and folly. Hazzard has said that the heroine of the book, Helen Driscoll, is modeled on herself and her own early life. The world of The Great Fire does seem to be seen through the eyes of a precocious, poetical teenager. The parents are almost like panto villains; the noble, terminally-ill brother Ben is all attractiveness, wit and indulgence. He dies offscreen, with great elegance. So yes, there is melodrama here, and also great beauty.

I came to love the hero, Aldred Leith, whose purely English steadfastness and reserve seem the result of a lifetime of careful observation, the cultivation of an awareness of history. A man who sees his own life as an infinitesmal speck within that larger story, but a speck with a conscience, a speck that is inflexibly determined to acquit itself well. I’ve known a number of Englishmen like this, and I found this character both credible and very finely drawn. The book is the story of Leith’s life, really, an analysis finely balanced between the poles of intellect and romance, between the historical and the personal, between love and war. Recommended.

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