on January 29, 2015
It's one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. It captivated me since the beginning with the charm and the sofistication of the language, never becoming heavy. The images the writer uses to describe moods, feelings, situations, states of mind, settings are mesmerizing. I read it a second time just to savour the language without being rushed by the development of the plot. Shirley Hazzard's style, the way she writes, is absolutely unique, very original and poetical. The love story between a girl on the threshold of womanhood and a more mature man, who has just come out from the horrors of the II World War, is fascinating and intense. He seems to cleanse his soul from the evils he just witnessed by breathing the freshness and the innocence of this ethereal girl, whom she worships while waiting for the right time to fulfill their love. This beautiful delicate love seems to acquire even more meaning and intensity against the haunting, terrifying backgound of the war. These two lost human beings, filling each other's void and solitude, live on a different dimension, carving into the surrounding darkness a world of their own, only for their souls and their minds.
on July 18, 2004
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. Aldred and Peter, the novel's two protaganists find themselves awash and adrift, emotionally disconnected and unable to resume with any conviction the lives they left behind. Fate, as it pans out, is kinder to Aldred than to Peter. He finds courage in reaching out for an innocent love and is finally redeemed by it. Peter is jolted by a squalid encounter with sickness and disease but his act of compassion signalling an unconscious desire to rejoin the living only brings devastating consequences.
The novel's thematic coherence and rich tapestry of colours is reflected in its wondrous characterisation. Some, like the elder Driscolls - frightening in their ugliness, or the prophetic "Ginger" (Japanese POW), may not occupy much page space but they remain firmly etched in our minds long after they have disappeared from the foreground. They and the many others who make fleeting but memorable appearances are the glue that bind the story together.
"The Great Fire" is like a finely chiselled work of art whose appeal may be limited to readers of serious literature. Clearly too, Shirley Hazzard won't be everybody's cup of tea, though readers who're so inclined will find GF an intoxicating read. A gorgeous novel.
One expected the long awaited novel from Shirley Hazzard to meet with adulation. Hazzard enjoys the reputation of writing award winning books over a considerable period of time. She also is her own person and defies classification as a novelist, so unique is her style. THE GREAT FIRE was twenty years in the writing and reading it reveals why that is so. Hazzard writes with thick, pungent, fragmented prose. Her manner is one of revealing bits and pieces of a story in non-linear fashion: at times within one page she has covered several decades of reference without even a demarcation of a paragraph or inserted space. This technique demands total concentration from the reader and at least with this reader requires retrograde reading, reviewing previous paragraphs and sentences to assure that the story is intact!
And of course it is. Any time spent re-reading Hazzard's luminous prose is time twice blessed. Few other authors can bathe in phrases so articulate and wise that not only are they descriptive and additive, but they also can be read as isolated poems. "Our pleasures. He and I have killed, hand to hand, and have absorbed it. Can recall it, incredulous. Our pleasures were never taken that way, as by some in battle. Once, after a skirmish in the desert, a fellow officer whom he had never considered vicious had remarked. 'A man who hasn't killed is incomplete, analogous to a woman who has never given birth.' Embracing the primitive; even gratified."
The story: "The Great Fire" references the global devastation of WW II with particular empahsis on the nuclear attack on Japan. The year is 1947 and the characters are two men forever bonded by their experiences in battle. One is writing a book on the effects of the war on Asia and the other is trying Japanese war criminals. The lives tie and untie in the most fascinating ways. There is a family spilt asunder by the times - a brother and sister cling together, he with a degenerative nerve disease, she with the commitment to caring for him. There is a love story; no, there are love stories, and each fragment of story unveils the damage inflicted upon bodies and souls by a War without equal. Hazzard captures the post-war fallout that has become all too familiar in the past century as well as the present one. And it is this weaving together of disparate souls in a tapestry of fire and smoke and eventual vacuum that is the driving force of this novel. Romance has never been written so bittersweet. "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 his 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 his times had pitched him, he had discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."
No, this is not a novel for a quick read on a plane or to keep in the car for unexpected delays. This is a rare gem that deserves full attention. The rewards are inestimable. Think Virginia Woolf. Think Reliquary.
on January 12, 2004
Shirley Hazzard has been MIA from the world of published fiction for so long that I would guess that most of my generation has never heard of her. Her last book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was written more than twenty years ago, and though it is now considered a modern classic it remains in relative obscurity. Having just finished reading The Great Fire, I can hardly imagine why a tremendous talent like this would take such a long hiatus from writing novels. One can only wonder at the many wonderful works of literature she would have produced, and we would have treasured, during these past two decades.
Hazzard writes with stunning emotional gravitas. She is one of the few writers who truly make each word count. This is a 278-page book that feels like it's twice that long, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Each page is so full of meaning and feeling, each sentence so perfectly crafted, each word so carefully chosen. So much attention was put into the writing of this novel that one feels an obligation as a reader to devote extra time and attention to the reading of it. This is one of those rare books that could be read over and over, each time offering new insights and never losing its power.
The subtlety of the prose lends an understated sense of passion to the beautiful yet somewhat painful love story that unfolds between the main character Aldred Leith and the young Helen Driscoll. He is a decorated war veteran, recently arrived in Japan to document that country's post-war transformation. She is a 17-year-old girl, wise beyond her years, the brave companion to her older brother who is slowly dying of a degenerative disease. Their love is unlikely, and naturally forbidden by her parents, and yet it is so undeniably right. Hazzard convinces us of this, but gracefully so, as if simply leading us to our own discovery of what is true.
What truly amazes about this book is that it is about so much more than just this one relationship. There are no superfluous characters here; each has a purpose and identity in and of themselves as well as in their relation to the main characters. Peter Exley is the intriguing foil to Aldred, also a war veteran but one whose battle scars have not healed so easily. Benedict, Helen's ailing brother, lives with great spirit and courage and serves as a mirror reflecting the beauty within his sister's heart. Aldred's estranged father looms as a distant ghost. Aurora, the father's long-time mistress, brings Aldred somewhat painfully back to a past from which he has perceivably moved on. Even Professor Gardiner, whose appearance at the beginning of the novel lasts but a few pages, adds depth and significance to the pages that follow even though he never reappears.
Note especially the elegance of Hazzard's prose, how she seemingly reads the minds of her characters and gracefully transitions from dialog to narrative with a third-person omniscience that reads like first-person self-reflection.
The National Book Award committee has chosen well this year.
on November 8, 2003
My words are inadequate to describe this book. To paraphrase Ms. Hazzard when she lets one character describe another's beauty by saying "no one has a right to look like that," I say that no one has a right to write like this. Her prose is graceful, concise and descriptive. I was hooked by page 7 with this description: "The man had a deep, low voice. If one had to put a colour to it, it would have been dark blue; or what people in costly shops call burgundy." Ms. Hazzard is able to say so much about the world in such few words. For example, a bridegoom is described as "pinstriped and trembling." On the brevity of life, a character says "'We are told that possessions are ephemeral, yet my God how they outlast us. . .'" There are succinct observations about women: "Balked of love, women will turn to religion, to nursing, to pets and plants, to things inanimate." And a woman taking a typing course is described as getting a life sentence. (A former woman colleague of mine said she always avoided taking typing so that she would never get a dead-end job.) One character says that there is no greater lottery than marriage. Is there a better way on earth to describe the risks involved in a marriage than that I ask. The main characters are good, decent people: Leigh, having been wounded and now returning from the Great War, is a model of decorum in his love for Helen, a young woman sixteen years his junior. She is the life line for her mortally ill brother Benedict. Peter Exley, friend of Leigh, risks everything to save a dying child of another race. You care about these people deeply. Ms. Hazzard's themes certainly meet Matthew Arnold's requirement of high seriousness-- the awfulness of war, the power of love. All we have to do to experience the timeliness of this novel is to watch or read the news. I put aside this great read briefly last evening to see the interview on the Bill Moyers program on the local public television station of a young wounded soldier forever maimed who had recently returned to the U. S. from fighting in Afghanistan. I suspect this young man would agree with Leigh who says the following about war: "Having had one go at setting the world right, I decline a second opportunity."
This book was nominatead for the National Book Award; it's certainly worthy of such an honor.
on October 8, 2003
The time frame for this historical novel is 1947-48, taking place primarily in East Asia, soon after the end of World War II. Ms Hazzard paints a panorama of a world ravaged by war through her flowing prose and with great descriptive clarity.
At the heart of the story is Aldred Leith, who is an English officer, and has come to chart the physical damage incurred throughout the war, particularly Hiroshima. He finds not only this but great psychological damage to the prideful Japanese people. In time he falls in love with a young girl living in occupied Japan who is caring for her physically disabled brother. Using parallel narratives, we meet Aldred's Australian friend Peter Exley who is investigating Japanese war crimes in Hong Kong. Exley is facing a life changing decision, deciding what to do with the rest of his life.
I was emotionally drawn into this novel and couldn't put it down. Many of the feelings of sadness and turmoil by rescuers and heros can be applied to our current situation in Iraq. A quote from the book sums it up as "the Chinese maxim whereby one becomes responsible for the life one saves". I would highly recommend this book.
on March 4, 2004
Shirley Hazzard's book, The Great Fire, is a fine literary achievement, not for everyone, but for readers who wish to take their time and enjoy accomplished writing. The author clearly devoted many years to choosing her words carefully. And the reader should always consider the context of her words. For example, on page 107, a young woman enters a room in a restaurant and then withraws. And, in Hazzard's words, "Down her dark blue spine, the thick, glossy, lacquered pigtail flopped heavily in a life of its own; evoking, in Exley, by vigorous contrast, the inanition of far-off Pattie's pusillanimous plait."
Of course, if one is paying attention, one knows that the reader is, or should be, within the thoughts of character Peter Exley, who would suitably think in this playful alliteration. It is in keeping with the content and context of his character. No, The Great Fire is not for all readers, especially those with thin patties amidst pusillanimous plaits.
on September 3, 2004
It is rare when a writer comes along and writes a poetic novel, wherein every sentence is a lyric, full of inspiration and pulse. I am reminded of Susan Minot's EVENING, and Maeve Binchy's NIGHTS OF RAIN AND STARS, and Jennifer Paddock's A SECRET WORD. Like all these novels, these scores of the human heart, THE GREAT FIRE roars!
on June 29, 2004
When I saw the average star rating, I was dismayed. When I read some of the reviews, further dismay. The beauty of Shirley Hazzard's language, the subtlety of the storyline, the complexity of the plot, and the emotions spilled forth from the characters all kept me enthralled in the work. Hazzard's understanding of human thought and the details of the various settings amaze me. Furthermore, her ability to convey the plight of a post-war soldier who no longer feels a "purpose" surprises me. Exhaustive qualitative research must have gone into writing The Great Fire, and the narrative reflects this. As I write this, I know that I will pick up the book again very soon, read through my markings (and I so rarely mark in books), and relive some of the majesty of the work.
on June 22, 2004
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 round-about tale ironically requires the reader to compete for the attention in ways today that some are just not accustomed. So few people today posses the patience to stick with such a wordy narrative, in which the author prefers to tell (and my, does she tell well!)insted of show. I read this book in about twice the amount of time it would take with a novel of one of Hazzard's peers. But what a joy the additional time was comprised of. Being able to close my eyes after reading passages and smile at the word play within. What a treat!