The Great Fire A Novel

Shirley Hazzard




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Winner of the National Book Award
A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times Best Book
A Chicago Tribune Best Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book
A Library Journal Best Book
Winner of the Miles Franklin Prize
Booklist Editors' Choice
A Kiriyama Prize Finalist

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 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 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 and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted.

A deeply observed story of love and separation, of disillusion and recovered humanity, The Great Fire marks the much-awaited return to fiction of an author whose novel The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critics Circle Award and, twenty years after its publication, is considered a modern classic.


Praise for The Great Fire

"Beauty is felt in almost every line of this austerely gorgeous work."—Chicago Tribune

"Stunning . . . Shirley Hazzard has gifted us, in The Great Fire, a novel of indispensable happiness and sorrow. I loved this novel beyond dreams."—Howard Norman, The Washington Post Book World

"A classic romance . . . the greatest pleasure is [Hazzard] subtle and unexpected prose."—Regina Marler, Los Angeles Book Review

"What better gift . . . than a novel that confirms the value of the individual—the individual heart, mind, spirit—even amidst the obfuscating demands of history and politics and culture . . . [The Great Fire] is a novel of incredible emotional wisdom, full of authentic characters, vivid places, and language that is both precise and beautiful."—Alice McDermott, Commonweal

"The Great Fire is a perfect book, without a superfluous word . . . radiant."—Eve Claxton, Time Out (New York)

"I wish there were a set of words like 'brilliant' and 'dazzling' that we saved for only the rarest occasions, so that when I tell you The Great Fire is brilliant and dazzling you would know it is the absolute truth. This is a book that is worth a twenty-year wait."—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

"Shirley Hazzard has written an hypnotic novel that unfolds like a dream: Japan, Southeast Asia, the end of one war and the beginning of another, the colonial order gone, and at the center of it all, a love story."—Joan Didion

"A striking timeless novel with an aura of aged profundity . . . extraordinary [and arresting] . . . Flashes of violence cut through the contemplative narrative, but in her exquisitely cut sentences, Hazzard concentrates on the subtler movements of these hearts cauterized by violence. Her story is eerily quiet, filled with despair but also traces of hope, caught indirectly, as astronomers locate dark matter by the way it bends light."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

"The Great Fire is a brilliant, brave and sublimely-written novel that allows the literate reader ‘the consolation of having touched infinity.' This wonderful book, which must be read at least twice simply to savor Hazzard's sentences and set-pieces, is among the most transcendent works I've ever had the pleasure of reading."—Anita Shreve

"The most interesting novel published this year . . . Exquisitely crafted . . . Every sentence hits its mark."—The Economist

"A new novel from Hazzard is a literary event. It's been two decades between the publication of The Transit of Venus and this magnificent book, but her burnished prose has not diminished in luster nor has her wisdom about the human condition . . . Hazzard writes gently, tenderly, yet with fierce knowledge of how a dearth of love can render lives meaningless. The purity of her sentences, each one resonant with implication, create an effortless flow. This is a quiet book, but one that carries portents well beyond its time and place, suggesting the disquieting state of our current world."—Publishers Weekly

"This almost indescribably rich story (which will remind many of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient) moves from strength to strength, and no reader will be unmoved by its sorrowing, soaring eloquence. One of the finest novels ever written about war and its aftermath, and well worth the 23-year wait."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. Copyright © 2003 by Shirley Hazzard. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an...

Read the full excerpt


  • Shirley Hazzard

  • Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) was born in Australia, and in early years traveled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand and in Europe; in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York; and in Italy. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994.

    Ms. Hazzard's previous novels are The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), and The Transit of Venus (1981). She is also the author of two collections of short fiction, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967). Her nonfiction works include Defeat of an Ideal (1973), Countenance of Truth (1990), and the memoir Greene on Capri (2000).

  • Shirley Hazzard Copyright Nancy Crampton




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