Last night I finished reading Shirley Hazzard's latest book, The Great Fire. I read it very slowly: it's the kind of book you want to enjoy to the fullest, so I didn't want to open it when I was just filling in time, or was too sleepy to take it in. And when I finally finished it, I felt as though I had had a box of exquisite Belgian chocolates and, although I was careful to conserve them as long as I could, I had just eaten the last one. I can still taste the sweetness this morning.
I read Shirley Hazzard's last novel, The Transit of Venus, as part of my Australian Literature course at uni. Being an impoverished student, all my books came from second-hand book stores and I remember turning up at the tutorial with my tattered paperback version in hand. The copy I had found was the kind of book that one of my lecturers would look down her nose at and term "airport literature": the title was in red foil letters and there was a slightly dated illustration on the cover of a blonde woman nearly popping out of a scarlet bustier. (The weird thing is, the heroine actually has black hair -- and I don't think she wears a bustier in the entire book.) My (richer) classmates had the brand-new version from the Co-op Bookshop, which had a very tasteful piece of modern art on the cover and a slim white serif font proclaiming the title.
Despite the off-putting appearance of its cover, I really enjoyed reading The Transit of Venus (and loved the debates we had in our AustLit tutorial about the ambiguous ending). So I was expecting a lot from The Great Fire. And I got it.
As well as rich, unpredictable characters and an intricate tapestry of plot threads, The Great Fire happens to be set partly in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where I have just visited. Not to mention Norfolk (UK) and Wellington (NZ) where I have also spent a little time. The postwar period setting notwithstanding, it was a kind of sweet synergy to have the characters treading in the streets I had so recently visited. Although I had to laugh when Peter Exley (a character who is originally from Sydney) describes working in the tallest building in Hong Kong, at 13 storeys -- these days, it would be one of the shortest (even our low-slung hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui had 14 floors).
We claim Shirley Hazzard as an Australian writer because she was born here. The Transit of Venus has an underlying theme of Australianness linked to the title: Captain Cook's voyage of discovery was primarily to observe the transit of 1776 from the southern hemisphere. Some of the characters in The Great Fire are Australian, too. But England, Japan, Italy, China and New Zealand are all beautifully represented in the scenery and characters of the book too. I think Shirley Hazzard is a truly international writer (in English), but nevertheless with a distinctively Australian sensibility.
I highly recommend that you read The Great Fire. It's just beautiful.