Filling in the space

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It is after the war and after the bomb, but before the recovery. A space The Great Fire fills with love, letters and Aldred Leith. Not too far from Hiroshima, and after walking across China, this decorated war hero comes to document what he sees and to find out what is left to feel.

It is a time when soldiers are sending the spoils of war home to America and Britain, as their families are still rationing. Communication is largely via mail, often unreliably delivered. The world is taking shallow breaths. Shirley Hazzard describes a space left empty. In ruined cities the rubble has been removed, ready for rebuilding. The most significant structures are temporary military bases. People’s lives are still dominated by the war.

Love is The Great Fire’s great understatement. Quietly discussed in private, barely muted in public. The value of the companionship in relationships is evident in the late 1940s, a time when so many people didn’t return. Love is interspersed with the loneliness of those who have lost love, or simply failed to find it.

Aldred Leith is surrounded by love. As our leading man he deals with it always: an absence of love from his father, as an object of worship by a dedicated friend, and as part of a misplaced love, lost somewhere in war and ending in divorce. His new love is of the forbidden kind. Hazzard uses Leith, an enigmatic protagonist, to explore the spaces created by different relationships. The book is poignant, questioning the significance of relationships, and how they relate to the rest of our lives, leading us to ask what our responsibilities might be as an employee, a parent, a lover or a friend.

Leith is staying at a military base, run by a hardened, aspirational couple from whom he keeps his distance. Especially as he finds himself so close to their children, two capable young adults who have travelled widely and able to share in his experiences and stories. There is safety in the space created by romantic imaginings, especially following so closely the destruction of the atomic bomb. Benedict is the elder and has a terminal illness. His sister, Helen, provokes in Leith a longing and tenderness behind his stoic demeanor. Leith consciously removes himself to other countries and other business, uncertain of his own motives. The space between them is excruciating.

Relationships are bridged across Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and England through correspondence. The letters, the waiting for their arrival, and their delicate preparation counterpoint the instant gratification of today’s text messages and email. Hazzard succeeds in slowing us down and bringing an awareness of the speed and complexity of our world.

Hazzard fills the gaps decisively. She lets us in on the secrets, the desires shared but unspoken in a civil and resigned era. Still, the book feels sparse.

Our world is compressed through the accelerated growth of the past 50 years. We are only minutes from any experience or event via television or the internet. The Great Fire encourages reflection on whether an instant society allows for the full gamut of emotional experience. What is more noble: the pursuit of technology for its own sake, or the pursuit of love?

This book deserves the Miles Franklin award. More importantly, we deserve this novel. We need its romantic look at a harsh and unforgiving time. We need to be reminded that the world we know is tenderly held together: by compassion and relationships that hold more importance than we credit them. We are a different world to that portrayed in The Great Fire. Yet, the people are much the same and their internal struggles not dissimilar. Perhaps we are due for some rebuilding of our own. 

Daniel Donahoo is an OzProspect fellow. OzProspect is a non-partisan public policy think tank.



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I loved reading your review of The Great Fire. My friend and I read it aloud to each other while on a trip to Tasmania and it engendered such love and quiet in us. Thanks Daniel. I loved your article about Patrick Little.

frances pegrem | 11 August 2007  

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