Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistIt may not have been the most sensible decision to read Chloe Hooper’s book, The arsonist, during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire week, but in fact I picked it up a few days before the crisis became evident, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. The arsonist tells the story of the man arrested and tried for one of the major fires in the Black Saturday series of bushfires that ravaged much of Victoria in February 2009. I have often wondered how you identify how and where a fire started. Hooper answers much of this.

However, what made this book unputdownable was that Hooper adopted, as she did in The tall man, the narrative (or creative) nonfiction style to tell her story, and proved herself, again, to be a skilled exponent of this genre. For those not sure about this genre, Lee Gutkind’s definition, quoted in Wikipedia, is a good start: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In other words, the information must be true or factual, but presented like a story.

Car in fire burnt bush

Bush, eastern Victoria, 9 mths after Black Saturday, 2009

Hooper structures her story like a classic three-act drama: I The detectives, II The lawyers, III The courtroom, followed by the Coda. She provides the facts – the whos, whens, wheres and whys – as much as they are known, but forms them into a narrative. So, after an opening paragraph which evocatively describes a fire-destroyed bush landscape, the second paragraph reads:

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

You can see, in this, that we are being invited in to see what her “character” Detective Henry is seeing, but we are also given very specific facts. The next paragraph, provides some personal background to this first “character” in her story:

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting …

As Part I progresses, we meet other police officers and forensic experts; we travel with them as they investigate the fire itself and then follow leads to the most likely suspect; and we are with them as they interview this suspect and arrest him for the crime. We also meet many victims who lost family members and/or property. Their stories are heartrending – excruciating, in fact, as I wrote in the margins – and were particularly hard to read, with similar losses occurring in Australia right now.

Using a similar narrative technique in Part II – providing facts, and describing the “characters” and their feelings – Hooper then introduces us to the Legal Aid lawyers, or one lawyer in particular, brought in to defend the accused. As she does this, our allegiance and sympathies shift a bit from the hardworking police to the hardworking lawyer – and, perhaps even, to her client who, only now, at this point in his life, is finally diagnosed as autistic, which provides a previously missing context for his strange responses and behaviours. And then, finally, in the third “act” or part, these two – the police and the legal team – come head to head in court, with our allegiances swaying between the two as they tussle it out, until the jury delivers its verdict.

The Coda, “set” some years later, contains Hooper’s reflections on the aftermath and some commentary on the process. For example, it’s clear that she had researched the case, had visited the fire region many times, including soon after the arrest, and had interviewed many of the participants, but, like Helen Garner in her three major narrative nonfiction works, had not managed to speak to the person at the centre, in this case, Brendan Sokaluk, the arsonist. Her request is refused, for understandable reasons. She was, she writes, both “disappointed” and “relieved”. Would speaking to him, she wonders, answer the book’s central question of “why”, and, even if he were able to explain why,

would understanding why Brendan lit a fire make the next deliberate inferno any more explicable? Or preventable? I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by a flame. There is only a person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged, or bored, or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

And there, I suppose, is the multiple tragedy of this story: the tragedy of a man ridiculed and bullied all his life for being different; the tragedy of a community that isn’t very good at managing people who are different; the tragedy of the conflagration (in this case a fire, but it could be anything) that can result when the two collide; and the overriding tragedy that there are no simple answers to arson.

Now, I fear you might think that I have given the “story” away and that you therefore need not read it. But, you don’t read The arsonist for the “story”. After all, this is nonfiction and the basic “story” is known. You read it for the insights that a fine mind (not a mind on fire!) like Hooper’s can bring to the situation. What she brings is both clarity about the facts and a nuanced understanding of what they mean. The arsonist is, as everyone’s been saying, an excellent read.

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring Hooper.

Challenge logoChloe Hooper
The arsonist: A mind of fire
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
ISBN: 9780670078189

35 thoughts on “Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

  1. I could not put this book down. However I was very disappointed in the final verdict of who the arsonist is. I really thought there was reasonable doubt and the young man was quite disabled. It still haunts me.

  2. I can’t imagine reading those stories of the victims at this time, but as you say, the book is unputdownable (even though we know what happens).
    It is part of the tragedy of the fires now that arsonists are being blamed in social media for starting them, when (according to the authorities) the majority were started by dry lightning strikes.
    And I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I can tell you that in Victoria, the problem of power company negligence (which I refer to in my review) has been addressed. All of the recommendations from the Royal Commission have been implemented in Victoria (which is perhaps why there is noticeably less criticism of the management of the fires here). There are community programs in place to monitor known firebugs so that they don’t get the opportunity to cause a tragedy like the Churchill fires. Another recommendation that The Spouse worked on was the management of power pole maintenance – how often it happens, how often nearby trees get pruned back out of harm’s way &c. No system will be perfect, and it’s a pity it’s thought too expensive to put them all underground, but what we are seeing now is bushfires whose origin is due not to arson, and not to corporate negligence but primarily as a consequence of changes in our climate. And that’s what’s so frightening.

    • Thanks Lisa. Yes those stories were very emotional, though fortunately for me I read them over a week ago before the worst of these fires. I do wish people wouldn’t jump to assumptions about causes of fires. An interesting thing in this book is that cigarette tossed out butts are low fire risk. Doesn’t mean people should therefore think it’s ok, given it’s littering anyhow, but I did find that interesting.

      I don’t think NSW has had the same power station issue Victoria has or has had. In the ACT trees and power lines have been monitored for as long as I can remember -and we have some weirdly shaped trees as a result! – but we also have more underground cabling here, except in the old suburbs.

      My understanding is that the origin of these fires is not so much climate-change caused – it’s still sparks from lightning, and all those other causes we can name – but that climate change is behind why fires are more easily sparked and why they are more destructive?

      • Well, as I understand it, the fire season is longer and much more deadly because everything is so dry, and the temperatures are so much hotter. So the fires spread more quickly and they join up together. What seems to be new is that these fires are creating their own weather, and they are fiercer and more powerful.
        We got 20 ml today with the cool change, and that’s the most we’ve had in a day since June. Ross Garnaut predicted this catastrophe and connected it to climate change 20 years ago.

        • Yes agree with all that. It’s just the point about what actually starts or originates them. They are, I agree, they are easier to start, burn more furiously, etc, as you say. I’m just pedantic because I don’t want to give the deniers any ins to pull our arguments down.

          20mb. How wonderful.

      • There’s an authoritative statement here from The Australian Academy of Science:
        Of course, most people are not going to read that. What is really awful about the public discourse is that instead of disaster bringing people together, the public response in social media mirrors the political divisions that are carving out the world into binaries. So any nuance is lost in the fray.

        • Thanks Lisa. I hadn’t seen that. Excellent. I love that they’ve seen increased visitors to their site. I’m also very embarrassed that I had no idea that the Shine Dome was named for Professor Shine who signs pff that media release. Suddenly, a few years ago, what we’ve always known as the Academy of Science building started to be called the Shine Dome. I thought it was just a popular name because of the shiny dome roof! But apparently not. Apparently it’s been formally renamed for John Shine who donated a huge sum to its restoration. The things you learn!

    • My memory of the last major WA fires (in the south, the north burns for months and no one notices) is that one of the causes was wooden poles on private property which the owners do not always maintain properly, or even know that they should maintain.

  3. This sounds riveting. People who do horrendous things can be such an enigma. I can imagine it being very difficult to write about them. Trying to understand these people and their actions is not excusing them, on the contrary, I think that it is important that we do so. I think that a well written book of this type helps us to do so.

  4. Sounds like a well done book. It reminds me a little of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book in which she investigates the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire.

  5. Pingback: Non-Fiction (General) & Poetry Round Up: Feb 2020 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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