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The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
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's review
Aug 12, 2011

really liked it
Read from August 12 to 29, 2011

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 protagonist; Ben and Helen, gifted young people in terrible circumstances; Peter Exeley, Leith's friend, who is groping toward his own future.

Shirley Hazzard's work is often compared to that of Henry James, for good reason: She has that acute observation of human personalities and interactions that can render subtle, precise truths. Her prose style is absolutely her own--she's that rare, truly original voice--and is deeply beautiful and evocative. (I should perhaps say here that I am particularly fond of elliptical prose, of sentences that must be reread to be understood.)

I have a few reservations about the novel. A minor one is that Hazzard's dialogue is sometimes indistinguishable from her prose. I also think that the novel could be more deft structurally. The parallel story of Peter Exeley is essential to Hazzard's theme but is awkwardly handled, seeming to be either too large or too small for the book. My last objection is not technical, but philosophical: the conclusion of the novel allows more nobility to passionate love than I myself am inclined to do. But the fact that Hazzard was by all accounts deeply devoted to her husband for the thirty-one years before she was widowed elicits my forgiveness.
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