The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

After the first few chapters, I was about to give myself the exceedingly rare permission to stop reading a book. The exceedingly annoying clipped sentences and cut down prose were not roses trimmed judiciously to showcase their elegance, they were a flower garden randomly hacked apart by a wayward whipper-snipper. I struggled to find meaning in the wreckage, and then somewhere in an hour’s enforced reading while waiting in a doctor’s office, a love story blossomed and then not even the author’s rusty blade could diminish its beauty.

After starting out as close as I’ve ever come to giving up on a book, The Great Fire eventually became one I didn’t want to put down.



The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia (the great fire actually mentioned in the book is not the Second World War …). In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist (Chandler Bing’s mom?), Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley’s life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity.

Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima (Leith never actually seems to do much work on this), Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith’s words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith’s sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own (indeed).