Sunday, December 12, 2004
I enjoyed The Great Fire tremendously--one of those rare books that calls out during the day to be read, that usurps the days because you want to get back to it. This was a function of a few things, but mostly the writing itself--clear is a weak word for its directness and force, for the rhythm of it. I stopped a number of times to unpack what made it so good--the choices she made about what to omit, the gaps that she leaves that make every sentence feel essential. No sentence felt workmanlike, had that air of "now I need to get them out of the room before I can get back to the meat". it was all meat.

Here's the opening:
"Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.

I don't think this is the best of her writing--good, but not that which really struck me. Here is a more representative passage:

"Filth was in fact on Peter Exley's mind in those first weeks;the accretion filming the orient, the shimmer of sweat or excrement. A railing or handle one's fingers would not willingly grasp; walls and objects grimed with existence; the limp, soiled colonial money, soiled notes curled and withered, like shavings from some discoloured central lode. Ammoniac reek, or worse, in paved alleys and under stuccoed arcades. Shaved heads of children, blotched with sores; grey polls of infants lolling from the swag that bound them to the mother's back. And the great clots and blobs of tubercular spittle shot with blood, unavoidable underfoot: what Rysom called "poached eggs." In such uncleanness, nothing could appear innocent, not the infants themselves or even diseased chow dogs, roaming the Chinese streets, or scrawny chickens, pecking at street dirt."

Friends who liked the book less than I did found the language stilted, and I think it is in places--and also that I like language that works a little harder than most and so am inclined to be more forgiving of that particular sin.

The atmosphere, characters, situations, development, all excellent, with one exception: in the core love story between Leith and Helen, I found the unwavering state of their desire when they were separated to be implausible. I can believe that they loved each other, were able to sustain their feelings despite their distance and the obstacles that lay between them. But that there was no doubt in it ever, no wavering, no frustration or unevenness between how one felt and the other and when they felt it, seems false, unnecessarily fixed and rigid. The other relationships--Exley and Miss Xavier and Audrey Fellowes, for example, are all delicately and realistically drawn.

Still a very fine book, and writing worthy of study and emulation, and the best book in a while (4 stars), but with this odd sticking in the center.


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