Hazzard painstakingly constructs a compact panorama of a world ravaged by war, in her expert fourth novel—and first since the NBCC Award winner, The Transit of Venus (1980).
The story opens in 1947 when Major Aldred Leith, a 32-year-old combat veteran and prison camp survivor, travels to a military compound on an island in Japan’s Inland Sea, preparatory to a “tour” of Hiroshima, one of several sites he’s compelled to write about, and understand. Housed with the family of an intemperate Brigadier, Aldred finds himself drawn to the latter’s adolescent children: beautiful, reserved Helen, and her almost ethereal brother Benedict, who is wasting away from a pernicious paralytic disease. Hazzard very gradually layers in revealing details of Aldred’s family background (as the basically unloved son of a successful romance novelist), complicated sexual and marital history, and increasingly disillusioning military experiences. And, in dexterously handled parallel narratives, she traces the fortunes of other deracinated and stricken people (“Everyone has a cruel story”): notably, Aldred’s Australian soldier friend Peter Exley, assigned to Hong Kong to investigate allegations of Japanese war crimes. The irony of “conquest” is expressed with matchless clarity and grace, as military idealism reaps what it has sown, Aldred stoically bears scars inflicted by “the great fire into which his times had pitched him,” things fall clamorously apart, and several “heroes” and “rescuers” recognize the bitter truth of the “Chinese maxim whereby one becomes responsible for the life one saves.” And all this is communicated in a chiseled prose that makes the pages shimmer, many shaped with the concentrated intensity of poetry. Except for a very slightly improbable ending, this almost indescribably rich story (which will remind many of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient) moves from strength to strength, and no reader will be unmoved by its sorrowing, soaring eloquence.
One of the finest novels ever written about war and its aftermath, and well worth the 23-year wait.