Friday, January 8, 2010

Book Review: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

I know I am in the minority here, but I just did not like this book. It is lyrical, poetic, romantic, atmospheric, and I just was bored to tears. It reminds me a great deal of Snow Falling on Cedars and The Gardens of Kyoto, both very well-received, beloved books that I also did not like. It took me well over 100 pages before I could stop pausing every time the name Leith came up and think, “now who is that again?” (answer: the main character.) Yes the imagery is beautiful and the language is evocative, but nothing happens. Even when something does happen, it is beaten around the bush, referred to so obliquely that I often think I skipped a page by accident.

Leith is a soldier in post-war Japan and he falls in love with Helen, the 17-year-old daughter of the crass commander of his new post. That’s the whole plot. The resolution really doesn’t resolve much of anything. It felt like it just kind of stopped in the middle. The storyline about Leith’s best friend, Peter, just disappears. He’s a major character for the first 2/3 of the book, then he gets sick and vanishes. There’s a single page letter at the end from his girlfriend telling Leith that Peter’s been doing very, very poorly and Leith even thinks that he probably should go visit Peter, but nah. The whole reason Leith was in Japan was to investigate Hiroshima, which he never visits (as far as we readers know) and is never discussed. Towards the end, I really liked the character of Aurora, and Leith’s mother was also nice and feisty, but these women don’t get enough screen time. Helen also makes some friends in New Zealand, Miss Fry and Barbara, but those storylines also go no where. At the end a woman pops up who we met very early on through a story Leith told Helen about his part, it’s the sister of a woman in Italy who he loved. She meets Aurora, cries, tells Aurora to tell Leith she said hi, and that’s it.

Obviously, I missed something in the storytelling. Also I miss the whole point of this style of writing. I am by no means saying that this is intrinsically a bad book, all the people who love it are wrong, I can’t believe it won the National Book Award (and the Booker and the Orange). This is a situation when I’m saying there’s a lid for every pot, and this book isn’t for me. Others will love it, I’ll grant that. But I was very disappointed.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey! Great review :-) I have had this sitting on my bookshelf for years and thought it might be a good candidate for the Aussie Author Challenge...Tried it but just couldn't get into it - granted I only tried the first chapter or so...but a book's gotta hook me in early ;-) Glad to hear I'm not alone!