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The Great Fire

By Shirley Hazzard

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher
: Picador (Macmillan)

Julie Barer writes:

In a 2004 interview for the Washington Post website, Shirley Hazzard addressed why she was drawn to writing about love:

“It's perhaps the most interesting phenomenon, it's almost like a spell that's cast on us, falling in love, that is. There is nothing else like it in life, and I think it is a central element of existence, either the attaining of it, or the lack of it, because the lack of love is a preoccupation of people. It's very obviously a part of our literary history, it has been a central concern to every writer, and that's because it's a central concern to everyone who lives. Also many things happen because of love, people withdraw from life or become violent for lack of love. And where there is not love, there is nothing.”

Hazzard’s fascination with love is evident throughout her gorgeously written and mesmerizing novel The Great Fire. Set in 1947, two years after the end of World War Two, Hazzard’s fourth book is about the emotional fallout of the war and the struggle by those who survived it to create life out of the ashes of death and devastation. Aldred Leith, a British soldier in his thirties, is a decorated and wounded veteran traveling through Asia attempting to record what he sees as the last days of an ancient culture being swept away by both modernization and the destruction of the war.

At the beginning of the novel Leith arrives at a military outpost near Hiroshima where he meets and promptly falls in love with Helen Driscoll, the seventeen year old daughter of Leith’s host, a tyrannical administrator from Australia. Helen’s brother Benedict is dying and the siblings immediately enchant Leith with their curiosity and hungry intelligence, their sympathetic natures, and their passion for literature. As Benedict’s health deteriorates, Leith and Helen’s romance grows, and he finds himself being drawn out of the haunted existence he has been leading. What better way to feel alive, to remember what is good about being alive, than to fall in love?

Thus, at the top of the path, Helen walked on by herself, straight into that other existence where she had less and less place. As she walked, she put her hand to her mouth to hold his kiss, and to her breast to enclose his touch.

The man, instead, went to his own room and to his table – to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction – the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life. Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which time had pitched him, he had discovered a desire to live completely, by which he meant, with her.

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.

Hazzard’s elegant and controlled style and careful attention to detail help the story become more than just a novel about the nature of war, but a novel about the nature of love itself. At one point, Hazzard has Leith reflecting on the kind of man his father was: 

“Not a great man, but interesting and singular. Not loving, but seized, even grandly, with the phenomenon of love.”

And thankfully for us, Shirley Hazzard too is seized with the phenomenon of love. We should all be as lucky.

Julie Barer is a literary agent in New York. One of her clients, Joshua Ferris, was a National Book Award Finalist in 2007 for his first novel, Then We Came to the End. www.barerliterary.com


Cecily Patterson writes:

“Persons of sensibility have enough trouble finding their bearings without being plunged into fires not of their making,” writes Shirley Hazzard in The Great Fire. While the Great Fire itself is the conflagration of World War II, it seems there are many lesser fires still burning in the aftermath of the end of the war. Through her hero, Aldred Leith, Ms. Hazzard aims her brilliant prose in an effort to illuminate the center of those burnings. Leith, while indeed a person of sensibility, seems to have the capability of rising above the flames while those around him either catch fire or are the opposite, made of asbestos. Leith seems to be the one who holds the fire extinguisher. The persons of sensibility include the fey young brother and sister Benedict and Helen, who both capture Leith’s imagination and ignite romantic love; his friend Peter Exley, who in a moment of extreme shift away from sense changes the path of his life and health, Aurora, Leith’s former lover and later his father’s lover, Leith’s mother, and a Japanese servant who commits hari-kari. The asbestos-clad include Benedict’s and Helen’s antipodean parents, (who, even though they are horrible petty snobs, I loved to read about) Leith’s own father, (a famous writer who writes of love without seeming to succumb to its snares himself) the American Slater, and a large amount of any country’s civil servants. While the great fires of World War II burned to ashes an unimaginable number of souls, there were those like Aldred Leith who managed to walk through the fires and emerge, while not unscathed, tempered, and with a grave compassion towards those who have lost their bearings. The book skips backwards and forwards in time and place to show us not only how Leith’s personal war unfolded in the greater world of war but also how perhaps Leith’s inherent nature was shaped by his path and by his ability to choose sense when sensibility would prevail. When sensibility does overcome him, it comes in the form of love and young Helen, and while loss both informs and moves their romance forward, the flickering between them seems a fire that heals and warms without burning.  To not become asbestos-clad seemed to me the message Hazzard sends. To temper oneself without burning up. This is a beautifully written book whose poetic phrases lingered in my head while driving to soccer games or shopping for the chicken. “Translucent structures are not welcoming in the rain.” I live in a rainy climate and who would not want a gift of a phrase like that to ponder under a dripping awning?  Hazzard’s gifts are many.

Cecily Patterson is writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has been published in Room With A View, the Pennsylvania Quarterly and Critical Quarterly.


ISBN: 9780312423582

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • T.C Boyle for Drop City
  • Edward P. Jones for The Known World
  • Scott Spencer for A Ship Made of Paper
  • Marianne Wiggins for Evidence of Things Unseen: A Novel

Fiction Judges that Year:

Antonya Nelson, Alice Elliot Dark, Peter Cameron, Jay Parini, Jean Thompson

The Year in Literature:  

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  •  J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, but left in 1947 to travel through Southeast Asia with her parents. Hazzard's early life “was a carbon copy of Helen Driscoll’s”the heroine of The Great Fire, Hazzard’s fourth novel. That book took her twenty years to write, but the effort paid off. In addition to winning the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire won the 2004 Miles Franklin Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, and named a 2003 Book of the Year by The Economist.

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