Excerpt from The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Great Fire

by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 288 pages
    Jul 2004, 336 pages

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He had the shabby little compartment to himself. It was locked, and he had been given a key. It was clean, and the window had been washed. Other sections of the train were crammed with famished, thread bare Japanese. But the victors travelled at their ease, inviolable in their alien uniforms. Ahead and behind, the vanquished overflowed hard benches and soiled corridors: men, women, infants, in the miasma of endurance. In the steam of humanity and the stench from an appalling latrine. Deploring, Aldred Leith was nevertheless grateful for solitude, and spread his belongings on the opposite seat. Having looked awhile at Asia from his window, he brought out a different, heavier book from his canvas bag.

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. In the thoughtful child, as in the imaginative and travelled schoolboy, the desire had been for growth: to be up and away. From the university where he did well and made friends, he had strolled forth distinctive. Then came the forced march of 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.

Where traceable, his paternal ancestors had been, while solidly professional, enlivened by oddity. His grandfather, derided by relatives as an impecunious dilettante, had spiked all guns by inventing, at an advanced age, a simple mechanical process that made his fortune. Aldred's father, starting out as a geologist whose youthful surveys in high places -- Bhutan, the Caucasus -- produced, first, lucid articles, had soon followed these with lucid harsh short stories. The subsequent novels, astringently romantic, brought him autonomy and fame. Renouncing geology, he had kept a finger, even so, on the pulse of that first profession, introducing it with authority here and there in his varied narratives: the Jurassic rocks of East Greenland, the lavatic strata of far islands; these played their parts in the plot. In Oliver Leith's house in Norfolk there hung a painting of the youthful geologist prowling the moraines on his shortish legs. A picture consequential yet inept, like a portrait by Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Leith's mother, by birth a Londoner, was of Scots descent. There were red-cheeked relatives, well connected. A fine tall stone house, freezing away near Inverness, had been a place of cousinly convergence in summers before the Second World War. Aldred had not been an only child: a younger sister had died in childhood from diphtheria. It was then that his mother had begun to accompany, or follow, her husband on his journeys, taking their son with her.

And on the move ever since, the son thought, looking from his window at the stricken coasts of Japan. Two years ago, as war was ending, he had intended to create for himself a fixed point, some centre from which departures might be made -- the decision seeming, at the time, entirely his to make. Instead, at an immense distance from anything resembling home, he wondered with unconcern what circumstance would next transform the story.

From a habit of self-reliance, he was used to his own moods and did not mind an occasional touch of fatalism. He had, himself, some fame, quite unlike his father's and quite unsought.

It was near evening when he arrived. The train was very late, but an Australian soldier sent to meet him was waiting on the improvised platform: "Major Leith?"

"You had a long wait."

"That's all right." They went down ill-lit wooden stairs. A jeep was parked on gravel. "I had a book."

They swung the kit aboard, and climbed in. On an unrepaired road, where pedestrians wheeled bicycles in the dusk, they skirted large craters and dipped prudently into small ones. They were breathing dust and, through it, smells of the sea.

Copyright © 2003 Shirley Hazzard. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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