2003 National Book Award for Fiction
Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley's life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity.
Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima, Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith's words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith's sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted.
"Hazzard writes gently, tenderly, yet with fierce knowledge of how a dearth of love can render lives meaningless....This is a quiet book, but one that carries portents well beyond its time and place, suggesting the disquieting state of our current world." Publishers Weekly
"Shirley Hazzard has gifted us....I loved this novel beyond dreams." Washington Post
"When the narrative leaves love to one side and concerns itself with depicting a world and a time in chaos, it rises to heights far, far above the barren plain where most of contemporary fiction makes its tiny maneuvers." John Banville, New York Times
"Hazzard's moral refinement occasionally veers toward preciosity, but such lapses are counterbalanced by her bracing conviction that we either build or destroy the world we want to live in with our every word and gesture." New Yorker
"Hazzard delivers a powerful sense of one generation's loss and of the way we must all cope when the road we take doesn't double back. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Shirley Hazzard has written an 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
"The Great Fire is a brilliant, brave and sublimely-written novel that allows the literate reader 'the consolation of having touched infinity.' This wonderful book, which must be read at least twice simply to savor Hazzard's sentences and set-pieces, is among the most transcendent works I've ever had the pleasure of reading." Anita Shreve
"I wish there were a set of words like 'brilliant' and 'dazzling' that we saved for only the rarest occasions, so that when I tell you The Great Fire is brilliant and dazzling you would know it is the absolute truth. This is a book that is worth a twenty-year wait." Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
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)
About the Author
Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia, and in early years traveled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand and in Europe; in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York; and in Italy. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994.