"The Great Fire" by Shirley Hazzard

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In this exceptional story, Shirley Hazzard gives us the eternal story of Aldred and Helen, thrown together in the chaotic and threatening aftermath of the Second World War. He's a major in the British Army who re-upped at war's end to study the effects of war on old cultures. She is the daughter of horrid and ambitious parents and has a terminally ill brother to whom she is devoted. She's loyal, erudite, fifteen years Aldred's junior, and falls unalterably in love with him. War's fortunes and the designs of empires unfortunately separate them and put an entire world between them - he is sent back the the U.K., and Helen goes with her family to her father's new posting in New Zealand.

There are several Great Fires here. One is World War II itself, and one is specifically the bombing of Hiroshima. Another is Aldred and Helen's love. Ms. Hazzard's prose comes across as reserved and cautionary, but is deeply touched by what we witness. The intellect and the heart are both deep, and deeply affected. Our author inspires awe at our renewed understanding of the power of language.

Our hero Aldred is a very virtuous man. He hides his severe wounds,which are physical as well as emotional. He is aghast in the wake of war and weary in the role of occupier (his superiors assign him to a study of Hiroshima after The Bomb). His friends and colleagues see it, too: one potential rival for Helen's heart gives up the field when he comes to know Aldred better.

Besides a very memorable love story, this is also the story of civilization and hope surviving cataclysm. (Not to spoil anything, but the force of Helen's and Aldred's love will at length not be denied.) Helen's beloved brother dies, and the cataclysm becomes close and personal. Aldred helps people in the U.K. - our author never flinches in her willingness to protray sympathetic characters - minor heroes - of either sex or any age. (The secondary characters would make a very fertile area of study.)

I honor Ms. Hazzard. I recommend this piece in the highest terms possible. Would that she produced fiction more often - I will definitely be taking up her other novels. Wow.
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