(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Great Fire is concerned not with the difficulties of war, but with the difficulties of peace. Shirley Hazzard explores the effects of war on both the victors and the vanquished and the necessity, “in the wake of so much death, . . . to assemble life.” While war allows fate to direct one’s destiny, when war ends, destiny is once more in the hands of each individual. As the novel’s hero realizes, “Peace forces us to invent our future selves.”

The novel opens in 1947, as British war hero Aldred Leith arrives on the Japanese island of Ita Siwa, near Hiroshima, to observe the effects of the atom bomb. Leith, “an experienced man in his thirties, notable as to build, brow, mouth, and hands: all the things that are said to matter,” comes from a privileged background. His grandfather made a fortune inventing an “unnamed mechanical process,” and his father added to the wealth as a successful novelist. Leith enlisted in the military because “it was the closest [he] could come to classlessness” and received the Victoria Cross for bravery in World War II. Leith’s wartime marriage has ended in an amicable divorce, and he finds himself looking for “a fixed point, some centre from which departures might be made—the decision seeming, at the time, entirely his to make.”

Leith has just completed a two-year walking tour of China, gathering material for a book on the effects of the war and the rise of the Communist regime. He now finds himself at a compound run by General Driscoll and his wife, an obnoxious Australian couple who “were disquieting as a symptom of new power: that Melba and Barry should be in the ascendant was not what one had hoped from peace. It did not even seem a cessation of hostilities.”

Inexplicably, the Driscolls have two remarkable children, twenty-year-old Benedict, dying from a rare genetic disorder, and seventeen-year-old Helen, “a quaint little mermaid of a girl.” The remarkably precocious children, left almost entirely to their own devices by parents who are both inconvenienced and embarrassed by their son’s illness, have devoted themselves to literature and to each other. Slowly, and against all his better instincts, Leith begins to fall in love with Helen and she with him. “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.” Fighting these emotions, Leith leaves the compound to travel to Hong Kong and China, but his feelings for Helen remain strong. His scruples regarding the difference in their ages finds him “assuming the role of apprehensive maiden; while the girl became the embodiment of loving impulse.” Despite the Driscolls’ violent objections, the two begin to plan a life together.

The novel weaves Leith’s narrative together with that of his friend Peter Exley, whose life Leith saved during the war. Exley, an Australian army lawyer “who had no flair for attracting favours,” is investigating Japanese war crimes in Hong Kong. Having fled Australia for Europe to study art history, he is saved by the outbreak of war, at least temporarily, from planning his future. Exley, passive and unsure of himself, is in a kind of postwar limbo, unable to decide whether to please his parents by returning to his father’s law firm in Australia or pursue his passion for art in Europe. As Leith says of him, “Of all my friends from the war, Peter has least impetus to remake his life. We all hang back one way or another, but he more than most.” Ironically, Exley’s one moment of unreflective action, when he attempts to save a dying child in Hong Kong, causes him to contract polio, and subsequently he attempts to take his own life.

Although the novel revolves around Leith and Helen and, to a lesser extent, Exley, Hazzard creates a rich cast of characters, weaving their stories throughout the novel and introducing new ones almost up through the last chapter, each of them worthy of a novel of their...

(The entire section is 1639 words.)