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The Great Fire

3.4 of 5 stars 3.40  ·  rating details  ·  2,891 ratings  ·  353 reviews
The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. 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, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another vete ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published July 1st 2004 by Picador (first published October 14th 2003)
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Simon Ph.D.
The only great thing about "The Great Fire" is its name.
This is one of those books that as you read it, you find yourself lost in thoughts about the morning commute, the long ago expired and still unpaid decal on your front windshield, about the dog, that you forgot to feed and you now know it repaid you by doing its business on the one spot of the carpet, which you fiercely guarded and hoped to protect before the weekend party with your boss and his pricy wife who for some time now has been...
Luther Obrock
Although I find this book terrible on many levels, I must start by saying that Shirley Hazzard is a good writer. Actually an excellent writer. Looking back on my experience reading the book, I have to say that I often enjoyed the beautiful phrasing long enough to forget what a terrible book this actually is. (as a side note concerning Ms. Hazzards language, if any Australians or New Zealanders happen to read this review, please let me know if you actually use the word "Antipodean" to describe yo ...more
Charles Matthews

Imagine if Jane Austen had returned to travel the world in the mid-20th century and to read novelists like Henry James, E.M. Forster and Graham Greene. What might she have written? Something like Shirley Hazzard's ''The Great Fire''?

Austen lived through a turbulent era, when the Napoleonic wars were raging, yet she stubbornly kept the great world outside of her novels. Her world was made up of small English villages, and she persistently saw it through the eyes of her female protagonists.

"The Transit of Venus" eventually won me over, despite occasional frustration with Shirely Hazzard's mannered and oblique style. But there were relatively few rewards for plodding through this disappointing effort. Hazzard's account of the romance between war veteran Aldred Leith and 17-year old Helen Driscoll spans a large canvas, both geographically and historically - the action unfolds from Hiroshima and Hong Kong to London and Wellington, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, still a t ...more
Feb 18, 2013 Barbara rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Barbara by: Maria, Merilee
Initially I considered not continuing to read this book because of what I considered a slow pace. Many of my GR friends, whose opinions I often share, had praised this, so I perservered. It is well that I did for I discovered that Hazzard has written an hypnotic, complex novel. Her prose is elegant, vivid and fervent. .

The Great Fire of the title refers to the conflagration which was WW ll, choking and convulsing the world in its wake. The story takes place in the post-war years, mostly in Asi
The immediacy, the level of the writing, transcends what is ultimately a simple love story set during WW2 and taking place in Japan, China, England and New Zealand. Hazzard's descriptions and Nevil Shute-like tone, both restrained and with exhilarating bursts of sparkly recklessness, make this a joy.
This a book that I had to read for my book club. It is in English, but hardly seems like it at times. Take this sentence as an example (my own creation): "While not quite thinking that the outside sky was truly blue, Elmo meandered into the edifice of goods" - meaning, Elmo went into the store. Does that created sentence even make sense? Think of an entire book written this way and you have the idea of what apparently constitutes 'Booker Prize' level of writing. The book reminds me of the two wo ...more
Annis Marney
Total sleeper as far as I'm concerned, but a great book. No one I ever talk to has read it. My mother was given it as a gift and passed it along to me. I almost put it down in the first 30 pages, but am thrilled I kept reading. It's the story of a brother and sister in post WWII Japan who are European and are befriended by an American who is stationed there immediately after the war. The setting is desolate and hopeless and guiltridden, the parents impossibly awful. The soldier is torn about his ...more
Violet wells
Beautiful inspired descriptive prose ultimately betrayed for me by the failure of the writer to fully imagine the character of Helen who throughout the novel came across as the wish fulfillment of an elderly woman rather than any kind of authentic seventeen year old girl and as such seeped way too much sentimentality into the structure of the novel. It ends up a bit like The English Patient crossdressing as Mills & Boon. But the writing is stunning, wise and poignant and relentlessly at high ...more
As beautiful as the painting that is used to illustrate the cover. Hazzard's writing is mesmerizing, and for that alone she totally deserved her prize. Such writing is pure art, it's literature at its best. The story happens to be as compelling and powerful, in a classic way that brings us back to a certain kind of Anglo-saxon tradition of story-telling.
I'm actually reading this for the 2nd time, something I rarely do. I'm really concentrating on the language and imagery this time and loving it even more than I did the first time. Yay, Shirley!
Question: What could be worse than the horrors of the Second World War?
Answer: Its aftermath.

It is 1947, and war hero Major Aldred Leith is in Japan doing research on a book. He stays in a compound under two despicable fellow Aussies named Driscoll, husband and wife. Altogether different from their parents are their two "changeling" children, Benedict and Helen. The first is brilliant, but deathly ill; and his sister is almost always by his side. She is fifteen years old, but Aldred and she man
Set in what was then called "the Far East" in the aftermath of World War II, The Great Fire is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer. The novel examines how lives and even cultures have been forever altered by the war, and demonstrates how people caught in its grasp struggle to see themselves as having free will and being able to make choices; it urges those who have managed to evade catastrophe to seize life and live it. The characters are convincing and indelible: Aldred Leith, the ...more
Jan 27, 2009 Lobstergirl rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: men aged 39-47
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Shelves: own, fiction
Read this novel for the exquisitely crafted prose. The sentences are understated, spare, austere, yet luscious. Unfortunately, the story itself is skeletal and the main characters with the exception of Aldred Leith thinly sketched. Also, all the characters think and speak in the same spare, luscious voice - which is perhaps believable for a war veteran of 33, but hardly for a 17 year old girl and her teenage brother. No matter how precocious they may be, teenagers don't have enough life experien ...more
Another book that took me an awfully long time to read. Like Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter", I found it difficult to get a hold on anyone in this book. Set in all sorts of places but at least initially in post-WWII Japan, it tells the story of Aldred Leith, ex-soldier, and somewhat of an expert in the affairs of China and the East (he spent a two years walking through China, just sort of seeing what it was like. In Japan, he encounters the Driscolls, an ex-patriot Australian family. The paren ...more
Jan 13, 2009 Jennifer rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like shirley hazzard, newcomers beware
How this book won the National Book Award over "The Known World" (and "A Ship Made of Paper" even with its minor faults) is beyond me.

Women are left by the wayside in terms of character development. The story takes place after WWII and centers on two male characters. The writing is good and sometimes is so succinct that you may miss things that have happened. But the relationships aren't that intriguing, the dynamic between the father and lead protagonist is lacking (why wouldn't Leith care tha
Ron Charles
War is hell, but victory is lonelier. Vietnam vets were the first to be diagnosed with "post-traumatic stress," but Hemingway described the disaffection after battle almost half a century before in "The Sun Also Rises." Warriors have had trouble returning home since the The Odyssey.

Add Shirley Hazzard's new novel to the shelf of haunting post-war stories. "The Great Fire" smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when the ashes of that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke estra
There could be dissertations written about the many "great fire" meanings. The most obvious is the bombing of Hiroshima, where the book first starts. Aldred Leitch is a hero of WWII and takes time to wander China to record the lives of the people before their lives are turned upside down. He goes to occupied Japan for something to do with his military job and ends up in Kure, a village outside Hiroshima. There he encounters two young people who are living with their very strangely uninterested a ...more
"The Transit of Venus" eventually won me over, despite occasional frustration with Shirely Hazzard's mannered and oblique style. But there were relatively few rewards for plodding through this disappointing effort. Hazzard's account of the romance between war veteran Aldred Leith and 17-year old Helen Driscoll spans a large canvas, both geographically and historically - the action unfolds from Hiroshima and Hong Kong to London and Wellington, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, still a t ...more
While I want to give it a higher rating, I found this book challenging to read. The author's voice was very difficult for me to interpret at times, which detracted from my enjoyment of it.

On one hand, the sentences could be lovely, intricate and descriptive. A line: "Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, he discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."

On the other hand, they could be so subtle as to be virtually uni
I had a similar reaction to my friend Janice, who said she had some initial reservations about the style but eventually came to appreciate it very much. The Great Fire of the title is World War II, although there are several lesser "great fires" referred to along the way and it's also a love story. I loved the way she explored the immediate aftermath of WWII in less familiar places (to me) - Japan and China - in terms of people trying to recall or rediscover how to live in a tentative peacetime ...more
The jury in my brain is still out on this book. I'm conflicted as to whether this is a strong three or a strong four star. At times, I felt FOUR loud and clear and others a not-so-brilliant three. I often read passages twice -- either because I didn't understand what was going on (was it intentionally cryptic and/or was the author trying to make me get out my dictionary?) or because they were simply so beautiful. The whole book was beautiful and reminded me of one of my favorite books of all tim ...more
This is another terrific book about the ravages of war. Hazard is a gifted and insightful writer whose story about a fairly ordinary young Englishman posted to Japan to help with the reconstruction and a proper English girl whose family has been stationed there is very good.

For those of you who have viewed my books of late, you've probably noticed that I do have lots of WWII and refugee themes running throughout. No apologies. I think it is was a really profound part of our history and, of late
Mar 20, 2008 Jennifer rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who love words, not stories
Recommended to Jennifer by: Classic List
Shelves: read-2008
Not really that thrilled with this book. I read it because I had once found it on some "must read classics" list, but I also once read that Shirley Hazzard is a writer who thinks a little too much of her talent to write (I believe it was Stephen King) and that is what I get out of this book. Loosen up and tell a story - the long beautiful phrases mentioned by a previous review-writer are exactly what the book seems to be about. Oh, and there's some people doing some stuff, but very slowly and no ...more
Jan 10, 2009 Jan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: history
The title refers to WW II. Dan gave this book to me after hearing a review on NPR.
I think the writing is exquisite. There are so many places I underlined that I would like to remember. Special phrases....reference to a handwome man "build, brow, mouth and hands, all the things that are said to matter";"coaqxing the bones together"; 'a fine tall stone house, freezing away near.......:; "black callligraphy of trees..."; "her immemorial feminie look; regret, accountability, resistence, and a plea f
One of the few recent "award" winners that is deserving of the word. A great novel, with prose that often is better, denser, more beautiful, than a lot of modern poetry.
The Great Fire is the 5th novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard. Set firstly in immediate post-war Japan and Hong Kong, then in England and New Zealand, this is the story of Aldred Leith, author, researching a book on China and Japan and Peter Exley, solicitor and fine art enthusiast, investigating Japanese war crimes. Leith encounters, whilst researching Hiroshima, a brother and sister, Ben and Helen Driscoll. Ben has a condition which is slowly killing him. Helen is on the cusp of adulth ...more
All war love stories seem to involve exiles, and this one did too -- between an English soldier, Aldred Leith, who seems to wander China and Japan in order to find an Australian girl, Helen, described as a "changeling," who hides within books and her dying brother. Despite the universal theme, this exiled love was surprizingly original and rather nice, especially admidst all of the suffering and loss associated with WWII, which Hazzard does not attempt to sugarcoat. I'm not sure what it is that ...more
Mar 04, 2008 Gloria rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Gloria by: Picked up based on 1) the beautiful cover design, and 2) the bl
I found this book to be a difficult book to start. Eventually, though, I was pulled into the book by the language, the colonial condition and the thoughts of the characters.... and pushed into questioning things that are deep inside me.

The second half of the book was much more engaging for me, and at several points, stopped me in my reading tracks. One example is Rita Xavier's comment to Peter Exley: " 'I have no need to condescend to Jeronymo da Silve.' 'You mean that I do. That I do condescend
Occasionally a book comes along that is unlike anything else I've ever read. This is one of those, and it is not a book for the masses. Especially today's masses. It's like poetry where one needs to stop and figure out the metaphor or decipher the meaning of a phrase or word by how it's used. Or mentally translate it into how you, the reader, would have said the same thing. Personally, I loved this - I like to think of it as doing doing word puzzles. At times it made for a disjointed reading exp ...more
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Author of fiction and non-fiction. Born in Australia, Shirley Hazzard now holds citizenship in Great Britain and the United States.

As a child she travelled the world due to her parents’ diplomatic postings and at 16, worked for the British Intelligence in Hong Kong, monitoring civil war in China. After this she lived in New Zealand, Europe, USA and Italy. In the USA she worked for the United Natio
More about Shirley Hazzard...
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“My need of your words: for such closeness there should be a word beyond love."

Helen, to Leith, in "The Great Fire”
“They walked off on the earthy path, laughing not quite naturally, for they could hardly help being pleased by the momentary attention of descending passengers and by their own almost meritorious youth.” 1 likes
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