Summary and book reviews of The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire

By Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2003,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2004,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley's life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity.

Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima, Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith's words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith's sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted.

A deeply observed story of love and separation, of disillusion and recovered humanity, The Great Fire marks the much-awaited return to fiction of an author whose novel The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critics Circle Award and, twenty years after its publication, is considered a modern classic.

Chapter One

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.

Leith sat by a window, his body submissively chugging as they got under way. He would presently see that rain continued to fall on the charred suburbs of Tokyo, raising, even within the train, a spectral odour of cinders. Meanwhile, he was examining a photograph of his father. Aldred Leith was holding a book in his right hand -- not reading, but looking at a likeness of his father on the back cover.

It was one of those pictures, the author at his desk. In an enactment of momentary interruption, the man was half-turned to the camera, left elbow on blotter, right hand splayed over knee. Features fine and lined, light eyes, one eyelid drooping. A ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. If The Great Fire is a historical novel—"historical" in setting as well as in its preoccupation with weight of political and personal history—how does the novel feel particularly contemporary? What themes present in the book exist today, in our world?

  2. The novel is, as well, a veiled critique on Imperialism, on the Western world's presence in foreign lands. In what way does each character reflect a different reaction to the East? What sorts of roles do they (Aldred, Peter, Oliver, the Driscolls, Calder, Talbot) play in its changing politics?

  3. In what ways is love expressed in the novel? Do these characters put themselves at risk for such expression, and furthermore, what must they stand up against to ...
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  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2003

Reviews

BookBrowse

A book that rewards the slow and thoughtful reader as the somewhat ephemeral writing style needs to be absorbed, and the nuances considered, before turning each and every page.  

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Michael Cunningham
Shirley Hazzard is, purely and simply, one of the greatest writers working in English today. Which makes me more grateful to have this long-hoped-for new novel.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
I wish there were a set of words like 'brilliant' and 'dazzling' that we, saved for only the rarest occasions, so that when I tell you The Great Fire is brilliant and dazzling you would know it is the absolute truth. This is a book that is worth a twenty-year wait.

Author Blurb Joan Didion
Shirley Hazzard has written a hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream Japan, Southeast Asia, the end of one war and the beginnings of another, the colonial order gone, and, at the center of it all, a love story.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

Despite this Australian writer's absence from the world's fiction stage--since the 1981 publication of The Transit of Venus, which earned her great acclaim, including the National Book Critics' Circle Award--her readers have continued to hold hands in devotion and anticipation..... this novel of war's aftermath becomes a story of love--or more to the point, of the restoration of the capacity for love once global and personal trauma have been shed.

Publishers Weekly

This is a quiet book, but one that carries portents well beyond its time and place, suggesting the disquieting state of our current world.

Kirkus Reviews

Hazzard painstakingly constructs a compact panorama of a world ravaged by war, in her expert fourth novel-and first since the NBCC Award winner, The Transit of Venus (1980).... Except for a very slightly improbable ending, this almost indescribably rich story (which will remind many of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient) moves from strength to strength, and no reader will be unmoved by its sorrowing, soaring eloquence. One of the finest novels ever written about war and its aftermath, and well worth the 23-year wait.

Library Journal - Barbara Hoffert

Writing in prose that is restrained and well modulated but freighted with meaning, Hazzard delivers a powerful sense of one generation's loss and of the way we must all cope when the road we take doesn't double back. Highly recommended.

The Washington Post - Howard Norman

Shirley Hazzard's stunning new novel, The Great Fire, is set largely in Asia in 1947-48, but the ravages of war are very much at its heart … Shirley Hazzard has gifted us, in The Great Fire, a novel of indispensable happiness and sorrow. I loved this novel beyond dreams.

The New York Times - John Banville

Although it is set in the still smoldering aftermath of war, The Great Fire is an altogether softer thing than its predecessor. In its dreamy solemnity and vague exactitudes, it is reminiscent of The English Patient...When the narrative leaves love to one side and concerns itself with depicting a world and a time in chaos, it rises to heights far, far above the barren plain where most of contemporary fiction makes its tiny maneuvers.

Reader Reviews
cloggie downunder

better than Transit
The Great Fire is the 5th novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard. Set firstly in immediate post-war Japan and Hong Kong, then in England and New Zealand, this is the story of Aldred Leith, author, researching a book on China and Japan and Peter ...   Read More

Liz

This historical fiction is set in Asia in the years following Hiroshima. The narrator who is studying the effects of world events on Chinese society and most of the other characters in the book are lonely, isolated people (even in crowds). It is not ...   Read More

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