Hazzard's `Great Fire': after the cataclysmThe

November 02, 2003|By Regina Marler | Regina Marler,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Hazzard's `Great Fire': after the cataclysmThe Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard. Farrar, Straus and Girouz. 278 pages. $24.

Shirley Hazzard writes for grown-ups. Her long-awaited new book, The Great Fire, can be counted with Middlemarch as one of the few novels in English that can hold the attention of an adult without recourse to comedy, freakish plot turns or sentimentality. It is also a classic romance so cleverly embedded in a work of clear-eyed postwar sagacity that readers will not realize until halfway through that they are rooting for a pair of ill-starred lovers who might have stepped off a Renaissance stage.

The girl, Helen Driscoll, is 17, the well-read daughter of a high-ranking, uncongenial Australian officer assigned to a post near Hiroshima in the years just after the atomic bomb. The boy is no boy at all but Aldred Leith, a British army major of 32, engaged in mysterious inquiries among the local people and already a source of suspicion.

The die is cast when Leith comes upon Helen reading Edward Gibbon's history of Rome to her invalid brother, Benedict. Leith's impressive war record is already known to them. When he treats them as adults, a kind of magic enfolds the trio. They regard him as a ray of light filtering through their familial prison walls. And Leith - solitary by circumstance, then by habit - begins to picture an improbable happiness with Helen.

Leith works alone. All we know of his vague project is that he has been sponsored by a high-ranking British official, now dead, and that he hopes "to render consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society." It has been a good excuse to wander China for two years, taking notes that he carefully sends into safekeeping.

Leith's compromise - and his deliverance - is his unlooked-for attraction to Helen, who conspires in his languidly paced pursuit. Both seem wise beyond their years, but Helen still has mileposts of adolescence to endure. Of her first kiss (thankfully, and crucially, not from Leith), Hazzard writes: "This, then, was the flourished reality: a brute fact, to which loving-kindness was simply, or not even, a preliminary. There had been a screen between her and this. Reality was a wet thick thing alive in her mouth." Leith returns to England, deciding it best to let Helen grow a bit older, even at the risk of losing her.

But as readers of Hazzard's best known novel, The Transit of Venus, will remember, the greatest pleasure is her subtle and unexpected prose.

Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom. This review appeared in longer form in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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