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'The Great Fire' by Shirley Hazzard

Hazzard's 'Great Fire' unfolds in a blaze of brilliance

Sunday, November 09, 2003

By John Freeman

The title of Shirley Hazzard's exquisite fourth novel -- her first since "Transit of Venus" in 1981 -- refers to the destruction wrought by World War II. It also evokes the fires of love, which flicker in the Far East, where British war veteran Aldred Leith goes in 1947 to examine the effects of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima.

"The Great Fire"

By Shirley Hazzard

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($25)


Heaving into peacetime with a numb heart and an eye for conspiracy, Hazzard's hero falls desperately in love with the young daughter of a British brigadier. Touring Japan, he notes how a defeated nation gathers itself in peacetime, secretly aware that to endure peacetime he must do the same thing.

Hazzard, who grew up in Australia as well as in what was then known as the Orient, knows well this period and captures its textures and idiosyncrasies with knowing grace.

In nearly every scene, no matter how decimated is the town or its population, Leith and his cohort, a similarly damaged war prosecutor named Peter Exley, eat several-course meals complete with burning eucalyptus, polished silver, a bustle of servants and tasty after-dinner aperetifs.

In the shambles of their post-colonial world, with politics spiraling out of control, cuisine remains strictly regimented. And yet the meals are so beautifully appointed, it takes the pleasure out of eating.

For all its spine-tingling finery, the novel is an often dense read. Hazzard's characters speak to another of the global theater in tones so formal you'd think they were sitting at a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable, rather than chatting over a gin and tonic.

Even more baffling, she will often switch between two characters in one chapter, so that it's hard to tell who is speaking. Given the subtleties of their conversations, it's important to know where Leith and Exley stand.

To complicate matters even further, she occasionally slips from the third to the first person, a narrative gambit that rarely pays off, no matter how lovely is the writing.

Hazzard spent two decades working on her novel, and if every second of that labor is not apparent in the book's hot-potato game with point of view, it is certainly writ large in the polish of her sentences.

Each sentence twists, turns and folds delicately inward, capturing how survivors of war carefully ration emotions and memories. The future, this war taught them, is not to be trusted.

Their formality, then, is a protective measure, a way to keep the future at bay by intellectualizing it. Still, Leith knows that he must shrug off "[t]he strain of fatalism" that hangs over him in order to love again.

With Old World patience and authority, Hazzard charts the pock-marked landscape of this emotional terrain, so foreign to us now, perhaps less so in the future, delivering Leith, and us, safely to the other side.

John Freeman is a freelance writer in New York.

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