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The Great Fire: A Novel [Paperback]

Shirley Hazzard
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 1 2004
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.

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From Booklist

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. Their thrill over her new novel will be completed; the long days and nights of waiting will be forgotten. Time and place have always been exactly evoked in Hazzard's fiction, and such is the case here. The time is 1947-48, and the place is, primarily, East Asia. Obviously, then, this is a locale much altered--by the events of World War II, of course, and, as we see, physical destruction and psychological wariness and weariness lay over the land. Our hero, and indeed he fills the requirements to be called one, is Aldred Leith, who is English and part of the occupation forces in Japan; his particular military task is damage survey. He has an interesting past, including, most recently, a two-year walk across civil-war-torn China to write a book. In the present, which readers will feel they inhabit right along with Leith, by way of Hazzard's beautifully atmospheric prose, he meets the teenage daughter and younger son of a local Australian commander. And, as Helen is growing headlong into womanhood, 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. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Beauty is felt in almost every line of this austerely gorgeous work.”—Chicago Tribune
“So majestic in scope and so sophisticated in diction it evokes a rhapsodic gratitude in the reader...Calls to mind the writerly command of A.S. Byatt, Lawrence Durrell, Nadine Gordimer, and Graham Greene.”
—The San Diego Union-Tribune
"The last masterpiece of a vanished age of civility."--The Wall Street Journal

"[The Great Fire] sails into port like a magnificent ship of fiction from another era."--Entertainment Weekly

"The Great Fire is about both the destructive conflagrations of war and the restorative conflagrations of the heart. Hazzard’s moving, generous story paints love as the greatest rescuer of all—as apt today in our troubling, troubled world as it was 55 years ago."--San Francisco Chronicle

“Hazzard writes with an extraordinary command of geography and time.... Flashes of violence cut through the contemplative narrative, but in her exquisitely cut sentences, hazzard concentrates on the subtler movements of these hearts cauterized by violence."--The Christian Science Monitor

"A hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream: Japan, Southeast Asia, the end of one war and the beginning of another, the colonial order gone, and at the center of it all, a love story."--Joan Didion, author of Where I Was From

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Devils and Angels walk a Fascinating World July 13 2004
By Peach
After loving The Transit Of Venus in 1981 and waiting impatiently for Hazard's next novel, I am horribly disappointed by it. I enjoyed her prose, very much liked the settings, appreciated glimpsing a fascinating time....but the characters are one dimensional paper dolls. The Bad Guys, Mr and Mrs Driscoll and Slater, are tacky and cruel while the Good Guys, Helen, Ben, Aldred and Peter, are kind and graceful and should be examples to us all. They ponder The Meaning Of Life and do naught but good. Why, their very thoughts are generous and wholesome at all times! Finally, everything I liked about the book is spoiled.
The Great Fire brings to mind one of Nevil Shute's postwar novels of The Pacific and England (eg The Trustee From The Toolroom or A Town Like Alice). Both authors are interested in the personal, cultural and political changes brought on by the war. Shute's characters were also black-and-white for the most part but they surprise one on occasion, as if all this meaning-of-life pondering has changed them in some way. I doubt that Shute considered himself a literary writer--he probably considered them "fightin' words"--but I have to give this matchup to him.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Ethereal, like an impressionistic painting July 18 2004
By A Customer
Shirley Hazzard, the celebrated authoress from Australia who obviously subscribes to the dictum of less is more, took more than 20 years to follow up her famous 1981 National Book Circle Award winning novel ("The Transit of Venus") with yet another award winner. This time, she bagged the 2003 National Book Award for fiction with "The Great Fire (GF)". While critical reviews have been ecstatic, the reading public appears to be polarised between those who adore it and those who loathe it. Me, I love it because it's right up my alley - ethereal and cerebral, yet curiously gothic. The experience is akin to one gained from staring at a great painting and imagining the lives of its subject on canvass. Turner's impressionist painting on the cover of the British paperback version is particularly resonant. Readers who draw on the immediacy of emotions for their enjoyment of a novel may find the effect of Hazzard's writing style distancing, bloodless, sometimes even unreal.
Hazzard's descriptive prose is spare, picturesque and precise, each word crystallising on the printed page like a hand picked gem. Her dialogue is terse, sometimes awkward. Nobody speaks like that, you catch yourself thinking, before you realise that maybe Hazzard never intended to capture the flow and cadence of natural speech anyway. Each word is laden with so much meaning there's almost a history behind it. GF is a challenging read but the riches within make the effort worthwhile.
The post-2WW landscape in Asia as described by Hazzard is one of utter desolation, filled with ashes from the ruins of torn lives. The burden of victory oppresses the survivors as much as death and humiliation haunts the conquered. There are no winners.
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Here's a story many readers would love: on the outskirts of Hiroshima, members of the victorious Allied forces look for love, for redemption, for recovery. A 17-year-old girl, caring for her terminally ill brother, and a much older British veteran, finishing his research for a book on Asia, fall in love amidst the ruins. The (still chaste) couple are then separated by her "evil" parents and they (more or less) wander the earth hoping to be reunited.
And I did love the story; it's about as old-fashioned a romance as you can find these days. But the author's prose threatens to swamp an otherwise insightful, magical book. The New York Times reviewer is kind, noting that although "Shirley Hazzard has a blithe disdain for postmodern pieties. . . . her elliptical style will quickly try the patience of all but the most devoted reader." Another reader comments here that "The dialogue and speech [are] completely inappropriate for the time. She seems to forget that this novel was not set in Victorian England."
Both these criticisms hone in on the problems I have with this book. It's not her prose style that's Victorian: Hazzard's writing is definitely modern (i.e., "elliptical"), but her narrative voice is from a previous century. She borrows Trollope's brain and writes with Joyce's pen. The result is a clinical detachment that can be intrusive and jarring: as omniscient narrator, she tends to spell out the psychological state of her characters rather than allow their actions and behaviors to speak for themselves. At times, it's like reading a New Age psychology text: "Attempts, with Rita Xavier, to deliver something of his soul always miscarried. But he returned to them--because he could not help believing in the sensibility of wounded persons.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Languid Afternoons April 29 2004
The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen's dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one's way through Hazzard's elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May - December romance will ever be consummated.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical & Profoundly Heard
It is rare when a writer comes along and writes a poetic novel, wherein every sentence is a lyric, full of inspiration and pulse. Read more
Published on Sept. 3 2004 by Maria Lake
1.0 out of 5 stars Reading this book was a painful experience
I really wanted to like this book--the plot framework was interesting enough. But the execution--aaargh! Hazzard's language was excruciating to read. Read more
Published on July 19 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Reading this was a painful experience
I would not recommend this book to anyone. The author's wordiness is very hard to sift through and the plot is very much lacking interest. Read more
Published on July 8 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Work
When I saw the average star rating, I was dismayed. When I read some of the reviews, further dismay. Read more
Published on June 29 2004 by Lara Dial
5.0 out of 5 stars Patience, people-
I'm amazed by the polorization this book has wrought on the Amazon critical masses. In this media driven society where artists compete for attention, we have Hazzard, whose... Read more
Published on June 22 2004 by P. Shelton
2.0 out of 5 stars a big disappointment
I simply can't understand why this book was a National Book Award winner. True, the writer is masterful at description, but the dialog is so stilted, so pretentious, that it mars... Read more
Published on June 22 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Book
I am intrigued by your readers' reviews of The Great Fire. They either love or hate this novel. I am of the former category. Read more
Published on June 17 2004 by J. GRAHAM
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite Simply a Masterpiece.
A poetic post-war novel that quite simply shows the modern day reader that masterpieces are still being written.
Published on April 30 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars dialogue
I don't know what kind of social life Ms. Hazzard has but this book has the most stilted, ridiculous dialogue I have ever read in a novel. Read more
Published on April 23 2004
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