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Love Among the Ruins
By Margaret Black

The Great Fire
By Shirley Hazzard
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 278 pages, $24

The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard’s first novel in 20 years, is a truly magisterial work by a great writer about the inconceivable devastations of war and the potentially saving grace of love. The author comes to us, it seems at first, like George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy, with the total—hence weary and sorrowful—knowledge of an omniscient 19th-century narrator. But quickly we realize that her story is arriving in fragments—literally sentence fragments—and allusive observations. We’re actually getting only broken signals, as though the author were broadcasting from a distant galaxy through tremendous interference. Readers must be quick to catch references and to make wholes out of small shards.

As the novel opens in 1947, Hazzard’s central figure, Aldred Leith, a much- decorated 32-year-old war hero, having completed a hike across war-torn China collecting research for a book, has now arrived in occupied Japan near Hiroshima, where he plans to inspect the tightly controlled atomic-bomb site. While staying in quarters run by an odious Australian couple, the Driscolls, he becomes enchanted with their brilliant dying son Benedict and his beautiful sister Helen. When Leith realizes that he has fallen in love with Helen, he hesitates. She is only 17. But he overcomes these scruples eventually, reasoning that a “scruple was a tiny measure, used perhaps by a jeweler or chemist. He had never dealt, in love or otherwise, in such minute quantities.”

Parallel to and interwoven with Leith’s story is that of Peter Exley, a soldier and friend whose life Leith saved during the desert war in Africa. Unable to decide what to do with his life, Exley is collecting war-crimes testimony in Hong Kong. In his personal life, he is totally at sea as well: “It was long since he had given affection or received it. He seemed to have dribbled away a lot of feeling in a kind of running sensibility, like a bad cold.”

Hazzard is simply a marvelous writer. She is witty: “ ‘Dignitary,’ Ben believed, ‘is a one-word oxymoron.” “Gloom without coolness” captures a fetid little room in Hong Kong. Her social observations rank right up there with Jane Austen’s: An unattractive Englishwoman, “while imploring Exley’s advances, plainly summed him up as a poor thing. The low estimate had nothing to do with her yearning to be chosen and thus brought into existence. Judging him a poor thing, she would yet have married him and given him a devoted form of hell.” Or, “Too cautious to detest, Mrs. Baillie did, with some regularity, not quite like.”

While Hazzard sees complexity in things both small and great, for the most part, she merely nods at it. When Leith and his driver stand at ground zero in Hiroshima, appalled by what happened there and questioning its logic, the polite American lieutenant assigned to accompany them notes quietly that he “was on Okinawa that year, through June.” You have to be quick to catch the volumes inherent in that statement, and at the same time understand Hazzard’s horror of the bomb. Discussing war crimes with Exley, a Dutch ship captain interviewed because he was a Japanese prisoner of war relates an atrocity against a German submarine in which he took part. Nor is evil relegated to war: Racism, greed, and ideological correctness abound in this book, as do failures of love and imagination.

Although I can’t help but admire what Hazzard has accomplished in less than 300 pages, perhaps she should have allowed herself more space. Her glancing, sketchy presentation keeps readers at a distance. Its aphoristic character quickly becomes bloodless, monotonic, making enormous differences in character and feeling sound all the same. Readers will find it hard to credit anyone with passion, especially Leith, who in addition comes perilously close to caricature, especially upon his return to England. Hazzard may be reflecting on events and loves long past, but the story purports to be happening at the time of the telling and should reflect the anguish, confusion, and passion of the moment.

That said, The Great Fire still contains more interesting individuals than books three times as long. The central characters are fascinating, and the relationship between Ben and Helen is one of the most moving in literature. Among the excellent minor characters are Bertram Perowne, the Driscoll children’s former tutor, of whom Ben says: “For us, he was Adam, naming the world.” Or Audrey Fellowes, everyone’s pal, nobody’s girlfriend: “Audrey rallies to the afflicted,” one relative says. “She is maternal.” Or Ray Rysom, Exley’s corrosive Australian roommate: “Rysom could introduce disbelief into anything, unmasking was his vocation. . . . If anyone told a joke against himself, Rysom laughed too loud—his need for advantage vigilant as fear.” Or Rita Xavier, the Eurasian of Portuguese descent, whose world is circumscribed by her caste. Or the elephantine spy, Mr. Crindle, an Englishman in Italy “who made variety legitimate.”

The Great Fire is a book filled with death, suffering, blighted hope, blackened ruin, and terrible evil, but piercing through are amazingly moving sprigs of green life. “Many had died,” as Hazzard writes, “But not she, not he; not yet.”

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