The Great Fire

Written by Shirley Hazzard
Review by Janette King

The Great Fire follows Aldred Leith, 32 years of age and a decorated British war hero, whose post-war mission is to document the aftermath of WWII on China and Japan. Leith arrives in occupied Japan two years after the bombing of Hiroshima. He meets and forms a rich friendship with Benedict and Helen, son and daughter of Brigadier Driscoll, a highly disliked hospital administrator. The pair are studious and very unlike their father: the teenaged Helen is devoted to Benedict who is equally devoted to her, and is dying of a genetic illness. Leith finds himself falling in love with Helen.
Ashamed of his flawed son, Driscoll sends him away to die alone, and removes Helen from her much older paramour by moving the remains of his family to New Zealand. Shortly after, Leith leaves Japan. Back in England he must deal with himself and various past relationships before he can dare contemplate any future with Helen.
The novel deals with transitions: of people finding themselves juxtaposed in impermanent situations; of acquaintances filling in the caring gaps where others closer than they should have been; of life rebuilding from embers. Hazzard’s writing style is neither flowery nor Spartan – she strikes a balance, though her narrative bond with the reader is somewhat cool. It’s a distancing, though, that befits the tentative nature of souls fearful of uniting in the aftermath of war.