To be perfectly honest with you, last week at this time I didn’t know who Shirley Hazzard was. But on Monday a friend mentioned her new book, The Great Fire, and that opened the floodgates. On Wednesday came word of Hazzard’s National Book Award nomination. (Did you know the NBA nominee pages list upcoming events for each author? Now you know.) Then Friday the Wall Street Journal Weekend section ran a review in which Jamie James said the novel “reads like the last masterpiece of a vanished age of civility, even of a certain understanding of civilization” and referred to the “Penelope-like vigil” of the many readers who loved Hazzard’s last novel, published 22 years ago, Transit of Venus.
22 years? I felt much better knowing that her reputation was sealed when I was–well, let’s just say when I was young enough to be excused for the oversight.
I’m now more than sold on reading The Great Fire. But I want to start at the beginning, with Transit of Venus, which Mallon calls “a swirling asteroid belt of connected stories” and “a novel stuffed with description so intellectually active as to be sometimes exhausting, as if metaphysical verse were presenting itself to the reader as prose.” The book is in hand, and the first lines do not disappoint:
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end.