Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Winner of the 2004 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Great Fire explores how individuals put their lives back together after a life-shifting event such as a war, and the part that love plays in our lives. Set in the years immediately following World War II, it follows a group of men who fought in the war and now are involved in the followup to that conflict, and the people they interact with.
The main character is Aldred Leith, a highly decorated hero who is investigating the aftermath of the war and deciding what path his life will now follow. He is housed at a residence with a military family, the Driscolls. He meets and becomes fast friends with their children. Benedict has a life-threatening disease and Helen, his sister, is his constant companion. Over time, Leith falls in love with Helen, which causes problems. He is thirty-two, while she is seventeen. Their love is fraught with complications and separation.
In addition to Leith, there are many other characters the reader meets and becomes interested in. Peter Exeley is a friend of Leith's, whose life changes forever when he attempts to rescue a native child. We get vignettes of his mother and father, a former mistress named Aurora and a mother and daughter household that befriends Helen during her separation from Leith. Each charcter is drawn deftly and in such detail that the reader can imagine knowing them if they were to meet.
The writing is hypnotic and dreamy; horrible events occur but seem to be seen through a mist. Emotions are explored and those characteristics that allow one to survive cataclysms are identified. This book is highly recommended by such authors as Ann Patchett, Joan Didion and Anita Shreve, and it is easy to see why they loved it so much.

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