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Thanks to her, Leith's fatalism has been replaced by "a great desire to live completely."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.