Top non-fiction of 2009
Is it cheating to do separate lists for fiction and non-fiction? Some people list their top books regardless of form or genre, while others created separate lists. I’m going to do the latter because – well, because I get to choose more books for a start. Actually, I didn’t read a lot of non-fiction this year so my top non-fiction titles will almost be all the non-fiction I read. As with my top fiction, I am listing them in the order I read them.
- Chloe Hooper, Tall man: Death and life on Palm Island
- Boori Pryor & Meme McDonald, Maybe tomorrow
- Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running
- Peter Godwin, When a crocodile eats the sun
- Barack Obama, Dreams from my father
Chloe Hooper’s The tall man
In a nutshell the book, which is best described as “true crime”, chronicles the fallout that results from the death in custody on Palm Island of indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee, fallout which includes the autopsy report and ensuing riots, and the homicide trial of policeman Chris Hurley. Hooper explores the awful disconnect between people in the communities involved, between white and black, and within the white and black communities. She shows how women (particularly those on Palm Island) are caught in the middle. They believed the policeman killed Doomadgee but, when the riot occurred, they didn’t want the police gone because “who will protect us from the men”.
Throughout the book, Hooper manages to bring what is a very complex situation into rather clear focus…showing, not surprisingly, that in the end it’s the whites who have the power. For example, she attends a police rally organised to support Hurley and notes how they, the police, were fashioning themselves as victim. She comments that “measured against two hundred years of dispossession and abuse, the idea is fantastic, but no-one in that hall was thinking about historical relativities”! This point regarding “historical relativities” is well-made: this is not simply a case of white devil versus black angel, but we know where the real “victimhood” lies. The book also touches on the notion of power corrupting – or, questions at least how police officers are chosen and trained in the first place.
Hooper manages to walk a fine line. You know where her sympathies lie (particularly as the book progresses and she teases out the evidence) but she takes an analytical approach encouraging her readers to also do so. This begs comparison with Helen Garner who takes a far more heart-on-sleeve approach to her subjects in her books, The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation.
Finally, she makes an important point when she describes Hurley’s trial as “a false battleground”. Truth and justice – those universal concerns – do need to come out, but the trial is not going to solve the underlying problems. The tall man is a highly readable book about some significant concerns (for Australia at least)…and, in my mind, well deserves the awards it has won. I have only one quibble with it: I wish it had an index!
POSTSCRIPT: Thea Astley also dealt with troubles on Palm Island in her novel The multiple effects of rainshadow. It deals with the event which occurred on Palm Island in 1930 when the supervisor at the time ran amok and killed his children, something which Hooper refers to in the book when she provides a little rundown of Palm Island’s history.
The tall man: Death and life on Palm Island
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2008