Sunday, September 17, 2006

Great Ashes

This week I reviewed for my book club The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, which won the National Book Award three years ago. Almost unanimously my book club detested the title for the way it misleads the reader. (They were even more scathing about the jacket copy. A lot of them obtain books from the library--remember libraries?--and those have the hardcover jacket on them, swathed in plastic.)

I had probably been similarly affected. The first time I read it, I found my enjoyment much compromised by the expectation I brought to the book that something like a great conflagration would actually happen. I kept worrying about it and withholding involvement with the characters for fear of referred pain. Silly me. (I know about metaphor, right?)

The second time, however, I no longer expected vivid descriptions of Hiroshima or the Blitz and so I allowed myself to fall in love with the book.

Almost everything in it, I warn you, happens in the background, at a remove, the way most (not all) of the great disasters of the world one lives in do. So the reader inhabits with the narrator and her protagonist, Aldred Leith, the charred aftermath of World War 2 with all the questions it raised about the future, some of which is now.

The driver of this exquisite, leisurely-paced book is a love story between a 17 year old girl and a war hero in his early 30's, both bookish, idealized, but memorable. The author was married for a long time to a man twenty-odd years older than she. As a result, it is difficult not to view some of this story of intense longing for one's soul mate to the fact that she had lost her husband not long before she would have begun writing the book. (I imagine that an author who lavishes such attention on her prose and lets twenty years elapse between award-winning novels might write slowly.)


It is simply a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.

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