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Publisher's Summary

National Book Award, Fiction, 2003

This mesmerizing, poetic novel has earned universal acclaim. Set against the beautiful but tragic landscape of post-World War II Asia, The Great Fire tells a sweeping tale of the search for new beginnings in a world ravaged by tragedy.

Thirty-two-year-old war hero Aldred Leith is in Japan to survey the Hiroshima devastation. His close friend and fellow veteran Peter Exley prosecutes Japanese war criminals in Hong Kong. Striving to rebuild lives shattered by war, both men reach critical turning points. Leith falls in love with a precocious and charming 17-year-old girl, while Exley faces a decision that will forever alter his path.

Author Shirley Hazzard's first novel in more than 20 years, The Great Fire is an elegant and beautifully crafted story that resonates long past the final word.

©2003 by Shirley Hazzard (P)2004 by Recorded Books, LLC

Critic Reviews

"What blows away all cobwebs is the extraordinary quality of the writing, gravely beautiful and utterly attentive...[a] marvelous book." (The Observer) "Hazzard combines emotion on a scale we associate with 19th century novels with language that has the freedom and lucid precision of early 20th century modernism." ( "The purity of her sentences, each one resonant with implication, create an effortless flow. This is a quiet book, but one that carries portents well beyond its time and place, suggesting the disquieting state of our current world." (Publishers Weekly)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • Overall

Always found something else to do

This is one of those books that must be better as a read than a listen. I would listen for a while, lose track, rewind. You know the ritual. In the end, I got through about three hours of it. Life of Pi has a slow start but then becomes engrossing. This doesn't ever make that step. The review says it's beautifully written. I like a well written book but not something that plods along like this.

43 of 47 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jim
  • Houston, TX, USA
  • 02-25-04

Save your money and your time

The review sounded so good I couldn't resist. I was hoping for another "Memoirs of a Geisha" but boy, was I disappointed. The story bounces all over the place, never seems to have a consistent theme and finally, turns out to be just plain boring. I'll give the author some credit; the imagery is nice and having traveled to many of the same locations in Asia myself, I enjoyed her descriptions of those places set in a bygone era. Unfortunately, the budding story of a war hero's longing for a very young girl (he refers to her as the "Changeling") made me think the guy was little more than a pedophile.

30 of 33 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Profound Waste of Time

I've probably listened to about 200 audiobooks. This was, without any hesitation, the most wretchedly, painfully boring book I have ever heard. Every single character was amazingly unlikeable. I detested them all. I was disappointed when I realized (after finishing the first half) that it wasn't over -- there were another three hours to endure. The plot is insipid. The production was poor (several times we were told that we were at the end of a cassette tape). The narrator's voice was a grating, fake british accent. Several times (and the memory makes me shudder) to set the post-war mood, she sings a lyric or two from popular songs of the era. I loathe this book. I want the eight hours I spent listening to this back.

18 of 20 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Daniel
  • Cleveland, OH, United States
  • 12-18-05

A high-class romance novel

The "Great Fire" is a high-class romance novel that contains a mixture of historical fiction, psychological portraiture, political commentary on WWII and its aftermath (particularly in east Asia, but also with some focus on England & Australia & New Zealand). It should appeal to those who enjoy traditional romance novels, but also to readers who prefer historical fiction & literature, with some romance thrown in to drive the action
All of the principal characters might be considered as members of the walking wounded. Wounded by upbringing, wounded by war. All are seeking a way out of their wounds by helping others, in official capacities (bomb survey, postwar trials, nursing relatives) and in their personal lives. Out of this the central & surprisingly believable love story between decorated war veteran of 32, and an 18 year-old girl, much older than her years in some respects & an 18 year-old in others, emerges.
The author has a hypnotic writing style that brings the reader into the frame ... understanding the motivations of the characters & their environment without much third-party explication. This is what gives the book so much power. You are drawn into the frame & truly want to know the outcomes for each of the characters in turn. One of those books where you hope to have a sequel, to see how things turned out but, in reality, it is better to let your own imagination work those turns without an author's assistance.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Don't do it!

I listen to approximately 25 audio books a year and have only been unable to complete two. This was one of them. Like the others, I read the review and had great expectations. What I got was what can only be described as literary autism. The author seemed to be determined to describe literally everything in the most forced flowered language possible seemingly without any recognition of whether the descriptions were of anything significant to the story that was being attempted. I find that when you have to work to pay attention to a book you are listening to, it is either a very poor book choice or it is poorly written. Sadly, in this instance, I think it is the latter. Don't bother purchasing this book.

17 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

I tried to listen

It was difficult. I listened for almost 4 hours and still did not understand. The individual reading the novel made it even worse. I finally gave up.If this were a real book I could probably sell it for $5 at a used book place. With an audio book it is just unused electrons.
Bored in Houston

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Couldn't get into it

I tried listening to this twice. Never could wrap my ears around it. My mind wandered. Easier to follow King Lear.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

what war does

How does one recover from the horrors of war and cope with the sense of loss and change both in oneself, in others and in the world in the aftermath is the difficult theme that this book tackles so well. It's a challenging book emotionally and an extraordinary chronicle of the social changes that the war had especially for England--the loss of the empire and the breakdown of the class system. But it's also a book about people and the various ways in which some suceeded and some failed in trying to get back to their lives. It's beautifully written--has the feeling of being from another era and yet it's not too hard to see that it speaks to the present as well. Patience is rewarded with this one.

15 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Literary and lyrical

I agree that this book is better read on paper than listened to, because there is so much interior reflection on the part of the characters without much warning about the transitions. But what lovely and elegant writing! It captures an era that most of us never knew.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Tracy
  • Marlin, TX, USA
  • 06-28-07

Just couldn't enjoy this one

I just couldn't seem to make myself care for these characters. I know the book was an award winner, but the audio version just didn't do the book justice.

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Overall
  • HappyLuckyAlix
  • 08-17-12

Wonderful wartime novel and beautifully read

This is a wonderfully written novel which credits the listener with the intelligence to handle complex language and subtle characters. Shirley Hazzard's themes of love, loss and attempts to rebuild broken lives after the second world war are not new, but her ability to write real people (both the main characters and the many secondary ones), create vibrant places and situations and her rich use of language, including a fabulous handling of dialogue lift this far above the ordinary. Virginia Leishman's precise RP suits the language well, but she's versatile enough to deliver accents, song and other languages beautifully too. A fabulous auidobook and one I will go back to many times.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful