Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the whole world was in a state of flux, and opening up like a flower from the heart of Asia to encompass England, Italy, Germany and New Zealand, The Great Fire is a sublimely crafted work of fiction. The story centres around honourable British war-hero Aldred Leith, thirty-three years old, who, after walking across China arrives in Japan to continue his study of ‘the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society’.
Pitching up in Kure, near Hiroshima, Aldred meets the two erudite and very close Australian teen siblings, Benedict (Ben) and Helen, offspring of the hideous Brigadier Driscoll and his inane wife. Poor Ben is dying of a debilitating and incurable illness. Helen is sixteen years Aldred’s junior but, despite his misgivings about the age gap, a love develops between them…
Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, [Aldred] had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with [Helen].
Needless to say the Brigadier and Mrs Driscoll are not impressed. It is a forbidden love, one that will be tested in a great fire of its own before Helen and Aldred know whether it has turned to ash or steel.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Peter Exley, another learned Australian and good friend of Aldred, is interviewing survivors of war camps as part of his investigation into war crimes. Aldred saved Exley’s life in the war and feels, as per a Chinese proverb, somewhat responsible for him. He visits Exley in HK for a time. We learn about Exley’s backstory and circumstances in much detail, a point to which I’ll return later. Aldred tells Exley about Helen. Exley approves.
From there the inevitable separations occur. Exley promises to follow Aldred back to Japan at some point, partly in order to meet Helen, but is laid low by illness. Then in an act of cruelty that is heart-rending for us readers, the Driscolls send Ben off to the US alone for treatment. They then take Helen to New Zealand while Aldred is called back to the UK after the death of his distant author father. They are at the opposite ends of the world.
The writing is, in a word, glorious. Told in what has become an unfashionable omniscient narrator, the prose has a timeless quality to it, heightened perhaps by the lack of urgency until the final third or so. The reader is invited into a world of shifting colonial sands, experiences the lives of people exiting a terrible epoch and entering a new, uncertain one, all of them fearing another world war.
How often we question longlists and shortlists of literary prizes, and even their winners. Not this time. Judges on both sides of the Pacific fell for The Great Fire. It won the 2003 National Book Award in the USA and the 2004 Miles Franklin Award in Australia. The prose is lucid and exacting. There are so many wonderful images, descriptions and wordplays it feels wrong to highlight any. (The word dilettante is used, which alone must be worth the Miles Franklin!)
Still, I’ll give you a flavour, a sentence or two picked (almost) at random. A humble old mirror, whose quicksilver had been ‘got at’ by damp, is described as being ‘like the draped pelt of some desiccated leopard.’ A perfect image.
Characters descriptions receive the same care. A girl is described as having a ‘jostle’ of teeth. Right down to each word choice, Hazzard hits the right note.
How about the word play in this sentence describing part of Hong Kong harbour:
The … junks with tan sails boned like fans and the tan-coloured bony man at the stern working the yuloh;
And there is Aldred’s arrival in Kure, where he is picked up from the train in a jeep. As he travels along:
You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands.
The style could be called ‘lyrical simplicity’, which might sound paradoxical, but I’m sticking with it. This last quote is part of the first chapter, which in many ways is a microcosm of the book. It opens with Aldred leaving the ‘charred suburbs’ of Tokyo on a train for Kure, contemplating a picture of his distant father on the back of one of his novels. Here we have the sense of travelling that is so much a part of the story to come, a rickety journey away from the horrors of war toward something brighter.
In Kure he seeks out a westerner called Ginger, who is suffering from radiation sickness after ‘being through the fire’ of Hiroshima. Aldred wants to ask him about the war and its aftermath, and although Ginger does tell him a little about the Driscoll’s compound where Aldred will be staying while in Kure, the two of them end up in intimate discussion about past loves. Even in the throes of Ginger’s death, which ends the chapter, the business of war is put to one side because of this more vital thing—love.
There is, though, this sinister layering of death following Aldred wherever he goes, forming a dark backdrop to the love that grows between him and Helen. We are always wondering which of these forces will win out: love or death? The lingering doubt builds through the final third of the story. The tension in the constant tilting of the impending fates is masterfully managed. I’m not giving anything away by saying the ending is utterly fabulous.
If there are faults with the novel they lie with Peter Exley, who is given perhaps too much attention for a secondary character. For a time it felt as though the story might be about both Aldred and Peter, but it then really zeroes in on Aldred and Helen’s relationship and the question of whether they will get together. As such, the time spent in Peter’s point of view in Hong Kong when Aldred isn’t there is a strange indulgence, forgivable only because the writing is so damned good.
After reading Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson, a story based on HHR’s own studying at the Leipzig Conservatorium, here we have another novel that uses the author’s experience as fuel for the fire: Helen’s life parallels that of the younger Hazzard, who grew up in Sydney, moved with her diplomatic parents to Hiroshima in 1947, then Hong Kong and New Zealand. She later spent a year in Italy and now resides between New York and Capri. (Having been to Capri, I can’t say I blame her!) It’s no wonder The Great Fire, years in the making, embraces so many territories. And not just the geographical and geopolitical, but the most complex terrain of all: the human heart.
A modern classic.
(And another Australian Women’s Writers book! It’s been all Australian women authors for me so far this year. Can I keep it going till the end of the year?)
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)