2:35 pm
Mon December 15, 2003

The Great Fire

Book reviewer Nicki Leone has been making her list and checking it twice.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's commentary.]

Oh, it is that time of year again?the holiday season, known in America officially as the holiday SHOPPING season, when we are all seized with a kind of collective panic to find gifts for people we barely know and rarely see.

Every day I face a battalion of anxious shoppers, ranging from people who know EXACTLY what they want (like the woman was looking for a book on how to make snow globes) to people who have no idea what they want: ?I need a book for my sister-in-law? said one woman to me rather desperately. ?She doesn?t like to read?. ?What? I wondered, ?are you doing in a bookstore??.

Of course, my own holiday shopping list can look just as vague?even though everyone I know always gets books! On my list is my Dad, the Tom Clancy fan. He is easy because he gets any book with a submarine or an aircraft carrier on the cover.

For my brother, who has a weird sense of humor that only his wife and I really get I found a complete collection of Gary Larson?s Far Side comics- and a coffee mug with Van Gogh?s self-portrait (his ear disappears when you pour something hot in the cup)

But it is my mother who I really love shopping for. My mother, who faithfully dragged me to the library every week as a child, and who is responsible for the fact that I love to read:

I always end up with a large stack of books for her, and the comfortable knowledge that she will read everything I send her. At the top of her stack this Christmas is Shirley Hazzard?s novel, The Great Fire. Since Hazzard writes a new book approximately once every twenty years, I?m trying to make it last. I have been savoring this one, chapter by chapter, for the last week?It has been my literary refuge from the madness of retail in the holiday season.

The Great Fire in this book is World War II, and Aldred Leith is one of its survivors. An American war hero in occupied Japan, Leith has found himself recording the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima with the same careful consideration that he has recorded the effects of the war on his own psyche and heart. The war left him damaged and, he fears, incapable of love. In truth, Leith wonders if the war left the entire planet incapable of love. But as he continues his gruesome work he meets an engaging young brother and sister- Helen and Benedict- whose bright and sharp intelligence pricks at Leith until he starts to feel again. Not surprisingly, Leith discovers he is in love with Helen.

This is a novel about the tragic dissolution of men and women in the aftermath of a war, and the beautiful fragility of the tenuous connections we create between each other. Although the book is set in Japan immediately after World War II, The Great Fire reads like it was written by someone living there and then. There is no attempt (and no need) to recreate the era, any more than Jane Austen needed to recreate the eighteenth century for Pride and Prejudice. The effect is seductive. The reader sinks into Leith?s world and life almost without realizing he has been captured.

Like all epic love stories, Leith and Helen?s affair must conquer mountains (and seas) before they are finally allowed to fall into each other?s arms. But in the end (and without being either sappy or maudlin) the author leaves the reader with the hope that love does indeed conquer all things?even the damage caused by the great fire of a great war.

I know mom will love it, and will take her time reading it. Which is a good thing, because it could be twenty more years before she gets Hazzard?s next book for Christmas.