Friday, August 7, 2009

Sunshine Smackdown Review: The Great Fire

C.S. warned me, and I think he was right.

I picked this book as my National Book Award winner, purely on the strength of my affinity for the cover and a "feeling" I had about it. The Force must have been particularly weak that day. C.S. described this as one of the less impressive winners--perhaps the NBA was having a light year?--and tried to steer me elsewhere.

Maybe if I was chronologically closer to World War II, I would have had more natural receptivity to the atmosphere of this novel, post-bomb occupied Japan and still-reeling-from-the-blitz England.

Maybe if I was more inclined toward romanticism, I would have relished the chaste-but-clearly-true-love relationship between the war hero Aldred Leith and teenaged Helen, 14 years his junior. Of course, she's fresh, intelligent and beautiful--indeed, she embodies everything the war was not--but I kept thinking, somehow, that the medals he'd earned in his military service had prepared him for something larger than the task of stealing a girl away from her parents.

Maybe if I wasn't quite so old-fashioned, I would have been more willing to accept how the narrative of the first part of the novel breaks down into a series of letters toward the end, and how many characters are introduced relatively late in the story. Such shifts always make me wonder whether the author got bored or ran short of ideas as the end approached. If I'm going to read letters, or follow multiple characters, I prefer to read and follow throughout the book, not just in the final chapters.

I don't think the shifting form serves any higher purpose, either; the world is supposedly becoming more coherent, not less so, whereas the narrative form moves in the opposite direction.

The writing here has its moments, but the overall tone colors the entire story with a certain airy detachment. I never really cared what happened to the characters. If the lovers had not succeeded, I wouldn't have been crushed. And their reunion didn't move me, although I am sure it was meant to be a kind of Adam-and-Eve recovery and redemption after the war's chaos and destruction.

All in all, I think C.S. was right: I could have chosen a more satisfying NBA winner to read. Maybe next time I'll listen. Wouldn't that be a first?!


His mother was looking out for him, standing at the top of the few stone steps that led to the front door. Leith could not remember her having done this before--unless when he was very small, for some shade of recall did touch him, at that instant, into childhood. He was surprised, too, by his own emotion: compounded of compunction and distress.

"Dear," she said. "Dear." As if she had forgotten his name.

They embraced, and went indoors. He put his bag down in the hall. Light from an elliptical window--set, as in a church, above the main door--showed a whiteness of walls and stairs more pure, or more austere, than he remembered. The smell of home, which is memory inhaled, was fugitive, as if less paint and wax and potpourri had lately been deployed.


  1. Two in a row! And you are the first one to finish -- CONGRATULATIONS!

  2. "Airy detachment" exactly describes the tone.

    This was one of those books that I enjoyed while I read it, but have never given it another thought after I closed the back cover. It went out of my head completely.

    I posted your link on the main Sunshine Smackdown page and featured you and your reviews in a challenge update post. Thanks again for participating with your great reviews!


Talk to me! I love external validation.