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The Great Fire Paperback – 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

Hazzard is nothing if not discriminating. Hierarchies of feeling, perception, and taste abound in her writing, and this novel—her first in more than twenty years—takes on the very notion of what it means to be civilized. The fire of the title refers primarily to the atomic bombing of Japan, but also to the possibility of transcendent passion in its aftermath. In 1947, a thirty-two-year-old English war hero visiting Hiroshima during the occupation finds himself billeted in a compound overseen by a boorish Australian brigadier and his scheming wife. He is immediately enchanted, however, by the couple's children—a brilliant, sickly young man and his adoring sister—who prove to be prisoners in a different sort of conflict. In the ensuing love story, Hazzard's moral refinement occasionally veers toward preciosity, but such lapses are counterbalanced by her bracing conviction that we either build or destroy the world we want to live in with our every word and gesture.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

From Booklist

Despite this Australian writer's absence from the world's fiction stage--since the 1981 publication of The Transit of Venus, which earned her great acclaim, including the National Book Critics' Circle Award--her readers have continued to hold hands in devotion and anticipation. Their thrill over her new novel will be completed; the long days and nights of waiting will be forgotten. Time and place have always been exactly evoked in Hazzard's fiction, and such is the case here. The time is 1947-48, and the place is, primarily, East Asia. Obviously, then, this is a locale much altered--by the events of World War II, of course, and, as we see, physical destruction and psychological wariness and weariness lay over the land. Our hero, and indeed he fills the requirements to be called one, is Aldred Leith, who is English and part of the occupation forces in Japan; his particular military task is damage survey. He has an interesting past, including, most recently, a two-year walk across civil-war-torn China to write a book. In the present, which readers will feel they inhabit right along with Leith, by way of Hazzard's beautifully atmospheric prose, he meets the teenage daughter and younger son of a local Australian commander. And, as Helen is growing headlong into womanhood, this novel of war's aftermath becomes a story of love--or more to the point, of the restoration of the capacity for love once global and personal trauma have been shed. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 326 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312423586
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312423582
  • ASIN: B0013TFC2I
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,016,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
One expected the long awaited novel from Shirley Hazzard to meet with adulation. Hazzard enjoys the reputation of writing award winning books over a considerable period of time. She also is her own person and defies classification as a novelist, so unique is her style. THE GREAT FIRE was twenty years in the writing and reading it reveals why that is so. Hazzard writes with thick, pungent, fragmented prose. Her manner is one of revealing bits and pieces of a story in non-linear fashion: at times within one page she has covered several decades of reference without even a demarcation of a paragraph or inserted space. This technique demands total concentration from the reader and at least with this reader requires retrograde reading, reviewing previous paragraphs and sentences to assure that the story is intact!
And of course it is. Any time spent re-reading Hazzard's luminous prose is time twice blessed. Few other authors can bathe in phrases so articulate and wise that not only are they descriptive and additive, but they also can be read as isolated poems. "Our pleasures. He and I have killed, hand to hand, and have absorbed it. Can recall it, incredulous. Our pleasures were never taken that way, as by some in battle. Once, after a skirmish in the desert, a fellow officer whom he had never considered vicious had remarked. 'A man who hasn't killed is incomplete, analogous to a woman who has never given birth.' Embracing the primitive; even gratified."
The story: "The Great Fire" references the global devastation of WW II with particular empahsis on the nuclear attack on Japan. The year is 1947 and the characters are two men forever bonded by their experiences in battle. One is writing a book on the effects of the war on Asia and the other is trying Japanese war criminals.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Eric on June 23, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
No, this is not the Da Vinci Code. Or John Grisham's The Firm. But here's the good news: I enjoyed both the Da Vinci Code and The Firm, and I loved The Great Fire. You don't need to be a snob to enjoy this book. It's a great story with great characters. But you're more likely to enjoy it if you really love writing (not just a good story, but also how language is used to get the story across). It is true that you will be challenged at times. When I started reading the book, I had the feeling that I didn't really know what was going on or who was who--Hazzard's style is not very linear. But in time everything starts making perfect sense, and you can't help being fascinated by the extraordinary command of the English prose that Hazzard has. With one sentence she can convey a place, a time, a feeling, an emotion in a way that you'll think you're there and it's happening to you. I believe she's one of the most talented writers I have ever encountered, and I've read a lot. I recommend this book to anyone who truly loves both great fiction and the English language.
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62 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Rockdoc on December 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As an English teacher, I am depressed to read that an author's having access to a sophisticated vocabulary is a drawback. Yet Shirley Hazzard's novel is an old-fashioned book--despite her elliptical style--for though the book is slender, the characters are fully rendered, and the theme of the novel--the absurdity and necessity of having a personal life in light of the destructive forces of war and politics--comes through clean and clear. There is so much mean-spiritedness in some of the reviews that it is difficult to know what to address first. Ben and Helen are old beyond their ages, first, because they read deeply and widely; second, because of the coldness of their family which has made it necessary for them to turn inward to books and to each other; and, third, because Ben is dying (look up the age at which Keats was writing his wonderful poetry or a biography of Sylvia Plath). Apparently, too, not one of the negative reviewers has ever actually been in love. One suspects that they took resumes from prospective mates! This story is also particularly poignant as a reminder of the cost of war.

I think reviewers and critics often miss the role taste plays in our evaluations of books. What I would like to see, in reading as in life, is a touch more humility before discouraging someone else from reading a book. I can't imagine that everyone associated with the Book Critics Circle is illiterate, despite the accusations of some of Amazon's reviewers. I thought Hazard's novel a beautifully written, fully realized novel and was disappointed to come to the end of it. However, I must confess that often, I don't get Borges. Does that make those that find his work valuable wrong? Is my denseness Borges' fault or my own?
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Lily Garrison on August 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Great Fire is a romance novel whose classic and somewhat predictable plot line is adorned and partially disguised by Shirley Hazzard's skillful writing style and the unfamiliarity of her exotic settings. The protagonist, Leith, is an independent, somewhat lonely figure. The lack of connection between Leith and his family and the nomadic nature of his life give him a strange quality of detachment. While he is knowledgeable about his surroundings, Leith seems to experience them as a remote observer, and to avoid becoming involved with the people he meets. After years in World War II and extensive travels through China, Leith appears wise and takes an air of mild resignation towards many of the activities of his daily life. Leith reads as a cinematic hero who allows his steady, rugged demeanor to soften for only a very few people.

The novel moves methodically. Hazzard bypasses climatic moments, and, instead, allows the book's excitement to spring from the sheer naturalness of its pace. She presents events in a lifelike way. Everything takes time. It takes time for Leith to receive letters from his darling love, Helen, and it takes time for him to get from China to Japan to London and eventually to New Zealand. Hazzard's ability to give a sense of the heavy, prolonged passage of time drew me in. As I read, I, like the characters, felt as if I were waiting an eternity for a single moment of passion, a consummation of Leith and Helen's semi-stifled love. The obstacles in The Great Fire play the role of the antagonist. The principal obstacle is simply the condition of humans both as victims of time and age and as slaves of society's expectations. Time and the objections of Helen's charmless, inhuman parents move like a sluggish juggernaut encroaching upon Leith and Helen.
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