December 01, 2003 12:00 PM

by Shirley Hazzard

CRITIC’S CHOICE

This novel about the aftermath of World War II took two decades to perfect, and it shows. The title refers both to wartime destruction and the fires of love in the devastated Far East, where British combat veteran Aldred Leith goes in 1947 to research postwar Japan. Heaving into peacetime with a numb heart and a mind for conspiracy, Leith falls desperately in love with the young daughter of an Australian brigadier. Touring Japan, he notes how a defeated nation gathers itself in peacetime, secretly aware that he must do the same thing.

Hazzard explores postwar Japan. Hazzard’s sentences twist, turn and fold delicately inward, capturing the way survivors of war carefully ration emotions and memories. The future, this war taught them, is not to be trusted. Still, Leith knows that he must shrug off “the strain of fatalism” that hangs over him in order to love again. With old-world patience and authority, Shirley Hazzard charts the pockmarked landscape of this emotional terrain, delivering Leith—and us—safely on the other side.

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