London seen through a haze of smoke and fire in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, is the evocative cover image for Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel. The Great Fire comes twenty-three years after Hazzard’s brilliantly composed, witty, and ultimately tragic work The Transit of Venus. Like the earlier novel, The Great Fire is ambitious in theme and intricately structured. It explores the human response to war and destruction, with the great fire of Hiroshima the immediate cause of the novel’s journeys among maimed people and damaged places in 1947.
Aldred Leith, a thirty-two-year-old British officer with a heroic war record, is sent to Japan to write his impressions of war’s aftermath in the area devastated by the atom bomb. Restless, estranged from his parents, divorced and uncertain of his future in civilian life, he welcomes an assignment that will deepen his knowledge of Asia. Having lived in Hong Kong as a child and later travelled widely in China, Leith has broader sympathies than most of his colleagues. He observes with growing distaste the psychological distortions that follow the Allied victory. At their best, the victors are patronising about anything Asian; at their worst, they take self -aggrandising pleasure in humiliating the vanquished.