Princess of Discrimination

Shirley Hazzard's masterly descriptions and expertly drawn characters are in full evidence in this new novel—her first in more than twenty years

It is said of a minor character in Shirley Hazzard's masterpiece, The Transit of Venus (1980), that "although she offered few opinions, her views were known in a way that is not true of persons who, continually passing judgment, keep none in reserve." One feels much the same about this nonprolific author, now past seventy and giving us, in The Great Fire, her first novel in twenty-three years and only her sixth work of fiction ever.

Most of Hazzard's oeuvre consists of slender volumes that once sold in hardback for as little as $3.95: her Italian romances of Jamesian sorrow and subtlety, The Evening of the Holiday (1966) and The Bay of Noon (1970); short-story collections minutely observant (Cliffs of Fall, 1963) and poignantly satirical (People in Glass Houses, 1967). For years her admirers have been awaiting what would be next, begrudging Hazzard even the time she spent on a brief memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene. (Why should this princess of reticence and discrimination expend effort on that voluble lout, who discovered his real genre in the angry letter to the editor?) Now Hazzard has at last, in the language of birth and publishing, delivered, and if The Great Fire lacks the astonishing densities of The Transit of Venus (a novel that, in its own astronomical terms, was really more like a swirling asteroid belt of connected stories), it still streaks through a reader's ken in the manner of a comet, quickly seizing the attention and emotions before disappearing, trailed by hopes for the characters' happiness—which, like a comet's return, the reader only half believes in.

Hazzard's new hero is Aldred Leith, thirty-two years old in 1947, a twice wounded British army major marked by a "strain of fatalism" and the tendency to be "exasperated by unsolicited emotion." Leith grew up the son of a well-known novelist, and the amicable conclusion of his brief, almost inadvertent wartime marriage has left him to the pursuit of his own literary project, commissioned by the army in 1945: an account of travels through China that will convey the "consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society" from the point of view of someone "not a spy, not a sociologist, beholden to no one."

Leith has decided to add Japan to his itinerary and ruminations, and so finds himself, in the spring of '47, in some hills above Kure, not far from Hiroshima, on the grounds of a hospital administered by a cruel Australian brigadier named Barry Driscoll, whose bullying rage soon leads to the suicide of a Japanese underling. Driscoll is assisted by an almost equally dreadful wife named Melba—whose chilling depiction joins those of Dora, from The Transit of Venus, and Norah, from The Bay of Noon, in this author's Dickensian gallery of crimped female monsters. The mystery of the Driscolls lies in how they have managed to produce two enchantingly sensitive children, Benedict and Helen, "a frail and remarkable young son, and a little girl who is a changeling," as Leith describes them in a letter to his friend Peter Exley.

At twenty, Benedict Driscoll is "hunched and angular" with Friedreich's ataxia, a neurological disease that is hustling him to an early death. Amusingly learned and altogether precocious, he is blessed with the cheerful, complete devotion of his sister, who is just as bright and not yet seventeen: "It was as if, in [Helen], Benedict had been re-created in radiant health, the hair made glossy, the skin vital, the form sound. With a second try, Nature had pulled it off." When Leith entertains these delicate captives with tales of war and travel, he seems like an older, phlegmatic Peter Pan among the Darling children. "My apparent role is avuncular," he tells Exley, though in fact, as he admits, it's actually Benedict who has become the sympathetic guardian of the other two, shielding the obvious and supremely inconvenient love that has sprung up between Leith and Helen.

Thanks to her, Leith's fatalism has been replaced by "a great desire to live completely." Helen has rescued him from "becoming formidable," convinced him he must now "get used to joy," even in the face of the malevolent elder Driscolls, who soon decide to thwart "The Baby Snatcher" (Leith's new nickname around the hospital compound) by spiriting Helen off to New Zealand and sending Benedict away for treatment that is both cutting-edge and hopeless.

Some readers may end up feeling that The Great Fire cheats them of a climactic conflagration. But Hazzard is less concerned with people's blow-ups than she is with the silent, totalitarian rule of enforced distance and disapproved desire. It's the smoke, not the fire, that kills most of us, and readers of this novel will never know for sure whether its ending signals a redemption or merely a respite. One remembers, as a caution, how The Transit of Venus was, in the strictest sense of its celestial title, about the way people perish from an inability to sustain their sudden, improbable alignments.

The story of Peter Exley, Leith's loyal, gentle confidant, seems both discrete from and connected to the rest of the book, as if by a kind of war-induced displacement. The reader loses track of the character for a while, and then seizes upon his reappearance once narrative communications have been restored. Exley's soulful nature and artistic bent have survived boyhood in Australia, where typically a "panic-stricken ribaldry [was] passed off as virility, authenticity." Now in Hong Kong, he works at moving some Japanese war-crimes defendants to trial, even as he "despair[s] of justice" and has "dreams of tenderness in love, as others might dream its eroticism." His physical health and emotional life come to a crisis when he assists a sick Chinese child whom others won't touch.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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