The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard was the first book I received from Heywood Hill as part of my Year in Books. You will remember the ‘to do’ when it arrived back in the early part of the month. I opened the parcel with tremendous trepidation. What if it was a book I already had? What if it was by a writer who wasn’t on my list not because I’d already read them but because I didn’t enjoy their work? What if I simply didn’t like it? Opening the package answered the first two questions but other commitments meant that it was a couple of weeks before I could do more than just pick the novel up every now and then and speculate about the third. Now I can tell you that I loved it.
It has actually been a very slow read. I’ve seen Hazzard likened to Henry James. I certainly wouldn’t be tempted to do that myself. Often with James you can get so tied up in a sentence that you have to go back and have a second run at it. While Hazzard is a remarkable stylist, I’ve rarely had that problem. Rather it is that not only every word has been weighted before being selected but also every syntactic structure. The novel was twenty years in the writing and such detail and precision deserves, even demands, an equal precision in the reading.
Set in 1947, The Great Fire is concerned with those people who have survived World War II only to find that peace does not come as the relief that they had hoped for, expected and felt that they deserved. Aldred Leith, at 32 a decorated war hero, arrives in Japan after walking through China documenting that country as it stands on the brink of Maoism. Disembarking at Kure, just a few miles from Hiroshima, Leith is brought up short by the devastation still apparent after the explosion of the first atomic bomb. It is an early reminder both to him and to the reader that the aftermath of war does not vanish over night simply because a peace treaty has been signed and that for many the consequences will continue to be felt not simply for a number of years, but for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.
In Kure, Leith meets the Driscolls, an Antipodean family comprising the parents from hell and three post adolescent children. The eldest of these we never meet and are told by several characters we’re lucky that that is the case. The two younger siblings, however, have escaped their parents influence and become Aldred’s close companions. They have been educated mainly by intelligent and humane tutors because Ben, who is twenty, is suffering from Friedreich’s ataxia, a condition that both he and his younger sister, Helen, know will kill him within a very short time. Despite the fifteen year gap in their ages, Aldred and Helen are immediately attracted to each other and in many respects The Great Fire is the story of their courtship. However, to see it just as a love story would be to completely misunderstand and undervalue this novel. Their love may be central but it is also simply another factor of post war life that is threatened by and may well crumble under the pressure of the hardships and deprivations experienced by those who are attempting to rebuild a world shocked by the discovery of its own destructive powers.
Interlaced with this, at least in the early part of the book, is the story of Peter Exley, an Australian friend of Leith’s with whom he meets up in Hong Kong. Exley, though longing to become an art historian, finds himself working for the War Crimes Tribunal, and at odds not only with his surroundings and his companions but also with himself. Lacking purpose and any real motivation he is drifting and he knows it. Aldred says of him of all my friends from the war, Peter has least impetus to remake his life and this sums him up perfectly. Initially, I assumed that we were going to be asked to make comparison between Exley and Leith and to some extent that is possible, however, if the book has a weak point it is the way in which Hazzard treats Peter’s story. At first it appears that it is going to carry a similar weight to that of Aldred but as the book progresses the Hong Kong sections begin to take on very much of a secondary role until they almost evaporate completely. While this may be an accurate reflection of the way in which many of those who survive war never find their way back to anything like a full life, it doesn’t work satisfactorily as a narrative devise and the book falters as a result.
This is, however, the only way in which this remarkable novel stumbles. Without in any way labouring the point, Hazzard explores a multiplicity of situations which illustrate the devastation brought about by the international conflict and the continued hardships, both physical and psychological that still persist and for some will endure for a life time. In Kure, so close to the seat of nuclear destruction, this focus is not surprising, but what brings it home most forcibly to Aldred is his homecoming after his time in the Far East. Immediately after his return from the European Front in 1945 the ravages of war torn London shock but do not surprise him. Three years on, however, the prolonged distress of both the city’s fabric and its people are less easy to come to terms with. Born in 1949, I just caught the tag end of this slow crawl back to a life approaching normality. Nothing has made me appreciate so acutely just how difficult those years were for my parents and those like them who had thought that the armistice would bring comfort as well as peace and found that it brought neither.
Given its subject matter The Great Fire could have been a disturbing book to read. However, the magnificence of the writing means that this is never the case. Hazzard not only selects every word with enviable precision but she matches that care with the syntactic structures she creates. Just one example will provide a flavour.
The room into which he glanced was mostly occupied by a wide bed, leaving space for a chair and tiny table and chest of brownish drawers. The table, by the bed, held a book, a lamp, and a bottle of pinkish liquid. Underclothes were spilt on top of the chest, and a pair of small shoes aligned below – sparse details build over by the fine wire netting that gave them the significance of a composition, a context for the girl on the bed.
Who lay on her side, sheet pushed back over raised hip, body reaching forward as if to follow her free arm, extended beyond the mattress. A thin shift disclosed her shoulder. Innocence, of youth and sleep, were entire and defenceless but the attitude prefigured knowledge. So would she lie, one morning in some imminent year, in the abandon now simulated here.
The whole passage, which describes Aldred’s first sight of Helen, is masterful, but the use of the word Who at the beginning of the second paragraph, raising as it does the spectre of a question which remains unspoken but is central to the relationship that will grow between the two characters, is peerless. This is a novel that will remain with me long after the actual act of reading and that, surely, is the ultimate accolade that can be bestowed on any book.
Quite what I was expecting when I travelled down to London last November and signed up for Heywood Hill’s Year of Books I’m not sure, but one thing is certain, if all the choices Lisa makes for me are of this standard it is a journey and a decision I am unlikely to regret.