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The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire (2003)

by Shirley Hazzard

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Started off excruciatingly slowly and was very hard to get into. The characters seemed so insubstantial at first, but as time went on Hazzard built them up through inference and action, and I was able to comprehend them as real beings. The book is written in a style more in line with the time it takes place, rather than the early 2000s. Beautiful set pieces, opaque dialogue, elliptical plots in which much takes place off stage, so to speak. The style reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Bowen or Henry Green.

The pure physicality of place and evocation of sites as separate as the Japanese hills outside Hiroshima, or Hong Kong, or provincial Wellington, or bombed-out postwar London is spectacular. Worth reading for the writing alone, though don't expect a plot of much moment. ( )
  sansmerci | Aug 25, 2015 |
excellent, powerful writing
  mtnmamma | Dec 19, 2013 |
I will admit to being disappointed in this book. I had high expectations however it failed to hold my interest and I found my mind drifting to more pressing matters and perhaps that was the problem.
I didn’t feel that the author created for me a sense of place, i.e. Hiroshima 1947. The focus was more on the characters feelings. (6.5) ( )
  HelenBaker | Oct 8, 2013 |
Although I loved 'Transit of Venus', and still love Hazzard's language, she didn't quite know what to do with herself here. There are more loose ends than a yarn factory, and endless painfully flatlined passages. After awhile, it's hard to pay attention because you know that she's not going to USE these characters, settings, ideas. She's just moving through them, as if she were a passenger on a worldwide train. It has a listless feeling, except where the plot bursts out, (one always feels) against her will. ( )
  idyll | Apr 9, 2013 |
Hazzard has an effective style of writing which is quite clipped, leaving out the subject of the sentence at times to emulate the way we think. So, having prepared the ground for his friend Peter Exley to find Audrey Fellowes attractive by mentioning her – ‘there was a pleasant woman at table’ – Aldred Leith’s satisfaction is put as a passing thought in this subjectless sentence: ‘Amused by his own deviousness in preparing the ground for those two’. This, I think, increases the pace, captures the way we think and keeps the reader a bit more alert. Hazzard also uses this sort of a sentence when Leith, coming to the airfield, is shocked by a crashing plane: ‘From those wings walked onto a stage where all activity was in that instance precipitated, as by magnetic force, far off at the water’s edge – concentrated there in a black swirl seared by flame and in a frantic convergence of vehicles and men’. The way this sentence is overloaded by subsidiary clauses really throws the reader off balance and recreates, grammatically, the inability to get one’s thoughts together when faced with such an unexpected explosion.

I also like the way she switches from her third person narration at times to go straight into the first person. As we’re following the characters in a largely limited third person way, the first person narration follows fairly naturally as in: ‘Before leaving the table, they exchanged addresses in Japan . . . Her good hands had a commonsensical way of bringing pen from handbag, of writing address in green notebook; aligning fork and knife [more effective clipping]. How women, he thought, develop capability, out of their hundred thousand rehearsals. As yet, Helen’s hold on things was tentative, unless with a book. Even so, I want her to grow older . . .’ Here Hazzard moves from the objective third person of them leaving the table to the more personal as we get Leith’s (dubious/female?) comments on women’s habits to the first person description of his feelings towards Helen and I think the transition to the first person is apt as it signals an intensifying of his thoughts.

There’s also Hazzard’s symbol of the great fire, this symbol building as the book unfolds, linking Hiroshima and England’s 1666 Great Fire as well as the recent war and seeming to suggest by the way Leith remembers climbing the stairs of The Monument, London’s tallest building at the time and a monument to the Great Fire, and feels that the effort was worth it. This seems to suggest to me that Hazzard is saying that we do gain from adversity, no doubt a simplification on my part. Books like this, of course, need rereading.

Will I, though, reread this book? Perhaps, but once again I feel uneasy about a novelist choosing to see life through the eyes of someone of the opposite sex to themselves. Hazzard’s Leith strikes me as a woman’s concept of the ideal man: physically courageous, good-looking, sensitive, patient and observant. To me he doesn’t ring quite true. Take this bit where he’s having a bath. ‘From the bathroom window, which opened with resistant scraping, there was a glimpse, and smell, of terracotta chimney pots grimed by coal fires. The glass steamed, the sill was filmed with soot. Towels were meanwhile warming on an electric rail, there was lavender soap, the tub was vast, and bright brass taps were large as his hand’. Now all this, in context, is seen from Leith’s viewpoint but while men can be observant like this and some are some of the time, I felt these sorts of observations would come more naturally from a woman. I’m not sure of some of her generalisations about men, either – such as ‘SoAldred Leith sat in the extra chair, and was pleased. Like most men, to see a woman sewing – or knitting, or winding wool, shelling peas. Servicable, soothing, seated’. Yes, her alliteration reinforces this feeling of contentment and, true, these are now by and large anachronistic occupations, but I’m not sure that even in the late 1940s men would generally have enjoyed seeing women doing these things.

It’s also the lack of any distinctively male attributes that diminishes the credibility of Leith for me. For example, he longs for Helen but when she takes off her clothes, he declines the invitation. Interestingly, though, I find the focus of his love, the 16-17 year old Helen, even less convincing. Perhaps Hazzard was aiming to create an adolescent girl with not fully formed views, but this character seems particularly unformed to me, insipid, just there as an embodiment of feminine enchantment, intelligent and compliant as she is with Leith.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of the way this book makes you think, I enjoyed it. Hazzard’s way with words is accomplished. ( )
  evening | May 18, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
What makes The Great Fire such a special novel is the lush and palpable desire present in so many of its pages, desire not just for physical consummation but for human connection and hope, made all the more meaningful by the backdrop of the cruelty and violence of war.
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Parce que, j'ai voulu te redire je t'aime
Et que le mot fait mal quand il est dit sans toi.

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312423586, Paperback)

More than twenty years after the classic The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard returns to fiction with a novel that in the words of Ann Patchett "is brilliant and dazzling..."

The Great Fire is an extraordinary love story set in the immediate aftermath of the great conflagration of the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the center of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.

In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia’s coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity. The Great Fire is a story of love in the aftermath of war by "purely and simply, one of the greatest writers working in English today." (Michael Cunningham)
The Great Fire is the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Fiction.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:53 -0400)

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In the aftermath of World War II, young men and women living in Europe and Asia reconstruct their lives, including a soldier who learns that material goods and success are not enough, and a woman in Japan who tends to her dying brother.

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