War is hell, but victory is lonelier. Vietnam vets were the first to be diagnosed with "post-traumatic stress," but Hemingway described the disaffection after battle almost half a century before in "The Sun Also Rises." Warriors have had trouble returning home since the The Odyssey.
Add Shirley Hazzard's new novel to the shelf of haunting post-war stories. "The Great Fire" smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when the ashes of that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke estranged survivors.
It's been 23 years since her previous novel, "The Transit of Venus," won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The careful poetry of "The Great Fire" suggests that perfectionism rather than writer's block consumed those two decades. In fact, the hiatus seems to have extracted Hazzard from the movement of contemporary literature and enabled her to produce a strikingly timeless novel with an aura of aged profundity.
Her story comes into focus two years after the destruction of Hiroshima. The war is over, but the peace is hardly satisfying, leaving a world grimy, lame, and troubled by rumors of resuming conflict. "In the wake of so much death," she writes, "the necessity to assemble life became both urgent and oppressive."
One of the many victors challenged by that necessity is Aldred Leith, a 32-year-old war hero, who's been wandering through the new peace like a man inspecting a burned cathedral. "I feel pursued," he tells a friend, "by evocations of wartime violence, unexorcised." Divorced from a war bride he never really knew and distant from his reserved parents, Leith comes to Japan to record the obliteration of an ancient culture.
"He had spoken with many persons grieved and embittered by ruin, and by the gross ambiguities of their liberation; and related these matters with simplicity and truth." Though we read almost none of Leith's report, Hazzard's narrative is steeped in gorgeous, tragic visions of Asia after the war along with the most careful parsing of Leith's uneasiness about playing conqueror amid the ashes of Hiroshima.
As a decorated soldier in the British army with a publishing assignment from a French general, he enjoys a rare kind of autonomy in this territory now firmly controlled by America. Autonomy, though, is a quality he's had enough of. "As war was ending, he had intended to create for himself a fixed point, some centre from which departures might be made," but two years later he is still "at an immense distance from anything resembling home."
Surprisingly, he finds refuge as a lodger on an island off the mainland where he stays during his observations. His hosts, a brusque Australian administrator and his bitter wife, "were disquieting as a symptom of new power," Leith thinks wryly. Living with them "did not even seem a cessation of hostilities."
But their son and daughter infuse his life with oxygen. Like Leith, Ben and Helen have suffered and benefited from isolation. Shipped around the world to avoid running into war or burdening their parents, these two siblings sound like characters written by Louisa May Alcott, the effect of having no company but each other and a collection of 19th-century novels.
Cloistered in their rooms with this dashing and modest war hero during hot afternoons, Ben and Helen feel as though they've discovered another fascinating narrator. Charming, openly affectionate, and searingly perceptive, they're just the sort of people Leith needs to nurse him back into the habits of affection.
However, two problems threaten this oasis in the ruins of war: First, Ben is rapidly declining under the effects of a chronic illness, which his parents alternately ignore and resent. Second, Leith feels he mustn't pursue his love for Helen because, at 17, she's almost half his age. And yet, as Ben's health fails and Leith's desire grows, the three of them conspire against death and parents to devise some way to stay together. "Having expected, repeatedly to die from the great fires into which this time had pitched him," Hazzard writes, "Leith had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."
Several stories develop alongside this one, involving Leith's friends and relations, all uncertain about how to reconstruct a life in the silence of peace. His best friend pursues war criminals in Hong Kong, but can't stand up to his parents. Back home in Britain, Leith meets an old lover who later became his father's mistress, a woman now suspended alone between her scruples and her shamelessness.
Hazzard writes with an extraordinary command of geography and time, moving around the world to gather fleeting but arresting impressions of fascism in Italy, battle in Germany, and defeat in Japan - all the shattering chaos that through a million permutations has brought Leith into the company of these two ethereal siblings.
Flashes of violence cut through the contemplative narrative, but in her exquisitely cut sentences, Hazzard concentrates on the subtler movements of these hearts cauterized by violence. Her story is eerily quiet, filled with despair but also traces of hope, caught indirectly, as astronomers locate dark matter by the way it bends light.
In a novel that would collapse under the weight of pretension if a line were mislaid, Hazzard keeps this romance aloft by virtue of her refined sentiment and an illuminating understanding of human nature. Against the backdrop of a world stunned by the most appalling obscenities, the affection between Leith and Helen glows with a kind of unearthly luminescence.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.