Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2018

The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper

One of the most riveting sessions at the recent Word For Word Non Fiction festival in Geelong was Chloe Hooper in conversation with Lisa Waller from Deakin.

Chloe Hooper is the author of two novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002) and The Engagement (2012, see my review) but I think it’s safe to say she is best-known for her incisive non-fiction.  The Tall Man, Death and Life on Palm Island (2008) (see my review) won a swag of awards, and I won’t be surprised if The Arsonist does the same.  It really is a stunning book, one which warns us of an apocalyptic future if we don’t act soon on climate change.  (If it’s not already too late).

This is the blurb:

On the scorching February day in 2009 that became known as Black Saturday, a man lit two fires in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. In the Valley, where the rates of crime were the highest in the state, more than thirty people were known to police as firebugs. But the detectives soon found themselves on the trail of a man they didn’t know.

The Arsonist takes readers on the hunt for this man, and inside the strange puzzle of his mind. It is also the story of fire in this country, and of a community that owed its existence to that very element. The command of fire has defined and sustained us as a species – understanding its abuse will define our future.

A powerful real-life thriller written with Hooper’s trademark lyric detail and nuance, The Arsonist is a reminder that in an age of fire, all of us are gatekeepers.

While the Black Saturday bushfires claimed 180 lives altogether, injured over 400 people and caused incalculable loss and trauma as well, Hooper confines her investigation to the Churchill fires which were deliberately lit.  (Most of the others were caused by power companies’ negligence).  Written in three parts, the book engages the emotions of the reader immediately because in Part I ‘The Detectives’, the focus is entirely on the victims of the fire that swept through this dormitory suburb for the power workers of the Latrobe Valley electricity industry.  As the arson detectives make their way through the eerie smoking landscape in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the stories of individuals impacted by the fires are revealed in all their harrowing and heartbreaking detail.  At the festival, Hooper said that it was hard to work out what the appropriate distance was to tell these stories.  She wanted to show readers what can happen in Australia, but she tried to be sparing all the same.  (She had permission for the most specific of these stories).  Many readers will find it quite overwhelming in places.

Part II is called ‘The Lawyers’ and the reader’s sympathies reluctantly shift.  The man accused of starting the fires is an enigma, and his lawyer finds herself unsure whether he is fit to stand trial.  He has an intellectual disability, exacerbated by the expert kinds of cruelty that schoolchildren can so remorselessly deliver.  His eventual diagnosis as autistic (in the leadup to the trial and when he was in his forties) is a tragedy of delay – not the fault of his parents, and not even by his teachers, but attributable to a lack of understanding about autism and the possibilities of early intervention in his childhood.  But he is also cunning and manipulative and no amount of pity for him can lessen the gravity of his crime.

Part III, ‘The Courtroom,’ is shorter, and is followed by a Coda, which conveys some of the emotional cost of writing a book like this:

Now, as I stand looking at Brendan’s old house, I’ve nearly finished writing this book, which came in fits and starts, after persuading people to speak, and learning of material that was hard to access, then too hard to deal with.  I have spent years trying to understand this man and what he did, my own motivation sometimes as indecipherable as his.  And, I wondered, what if, having asked the police and lawyers dozens of questions, trying to get tiny details right, I essentially ended up with little more than a series of impressions?  Would the result be ultimately a fiction?

Maybe, that morning, Brendan woke up inside this house and before long a dark idea took root.  And maybe, by the middle of the scorching day, as he stood watching a fire truck arriving to extinguish a grassfire (the blaring siren, the flashing lights, the uniformed volunteers — a scene from the children’s shows he adored, a tableau of power, adrenaline, control) the idea had grown.  If he set a fire near this place where he felt inept and invisible, he could bravely fight it, or warn others they were in danger.  He could punish all those bad people who though he was an idiot and be their saviour…

And there I’d go, imagining there was a reason for an act that’s senseless. (p.232)

At the festival, Hooper reminded us that arson is an ‘odd’ crime.  The perpetrator doesn’t gain much.  Yet 50% of all grassfires are deliberately lit.  And only 1% of those acts of arson result in a conviction.   So this book needs to be widely read, so that the need to monitor firebugs on days of high fire danger is widely understood.  But the question of how we treat people who are different, and how as a society we can protect ourselves from their crimes, remains unresolved.

Author: Chloe Hooper
Title: The Arsonist, A Mind on Fire
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House) Australia, 2018, 254 pages
ISBN: 9780143795551
Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available from Fishpond: The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire



  1. […] The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, (see my review) In this masterful work, Chloe Hooper attempts to decipher the life of Brendan Sokaluk, the man […]


  2. looks interesting


  3. While I wait for the E-book The Arsonist
    I’ll start straightaway with 2008 The Tall Man, Death and Life on Palm Island.
    Great review….!


    • The Tall Man is shocking, but necessary.


  4. It’s a difficult question – how to protect ourselves from people who will probably commit a crime. Certainly identification and watchfulness is part of the answer, but that is also the right’s answer to anti-state activities, and involves an unacceptable reduction in civil liberties


    • Yes, that’s the conundrum. Ideally, the community in which the possible culprit lives recognises the problem and will cooperate to keep an eye on things and alert authorities when necessary. But it needs to done with tact and respect for the person, and that’s sometimes in short supply…


  5. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.


  6. I’m going to add this to my suggested recommendations for next year’s reading group – I wonder if I’ll get interest.

    I’m so glad Hooper has followed up The tall man, because that was such a wonderfully written book.

    Bill has raised that thorny question about the right level of civil liberties – what’s acceptable, and what isn’t?


    • Well, yes… and it’s certainly a good conversation starter! Last night I had dinner with some colleagues I’ve been friends with now for 30 years and (triggered by The Arsonist, because I always earbash them about books, of course) we had a great discussion about the civil rights of feckless parents and their hapless children!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Such a tricky issue… I’d love to have been a fly on the wall. As teachers you would be better placed than many to see it all playing out first hand. Some of the things I hear from my son make me want to cry.


  7. Can’t wait to read this, but there doesn’t seem to be a British publication date as yet. Might have to fly home for a copy 😉


    • LOL a quick trip to Readings, eh?


      • Well, I’ve just quit my job so it’s actually a possibility 😉


        • Uh… I thought you loved it!


  8. The mix of facts and figures with great storytelling is what I found made this book so compelling. I appreciated how she didn’t tell us what to think and gave some scope for doubt.

    One of the comments that still makes me feel cranky weeks later though, is one of the park officers talking about how much illegal dumping happens in state forests. I live in an area surrounded by a large apartment complex. The number of people who move out, leaving unwanted furniture scattered across the footpath is astonishing…and there doesn’t appear to be anything anyone can do. Not sure if the strata gets charged the fee when they can’t track down the culprit, but it’s so selfish and irresponsible…and this level of over-consumption is on increase.

    I’m sure that Hooper has a swag of shortlists coming her way with this one too.


    • I heard her interviewed today on Big Ideas, and she really is an impressive speaker about this…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I listened to the interview with C. Hooper…even if I’m on the other side of the world!
    Ms. Hooper has done her homework and the facts were flowing fast and furious. Book is on top of my Non-fiction TBR!


  10. It sounds interesting and it would be fascinating to read a comparable book about fires in California.

    I have The Tall Man, Death and Life on Palm Island on the shelf, in French. I’ll come to it one of these days.


    • I expect they have the same problem with firebugs as other places do around the world. The question is, what to do about them.


      • It’s not always firebugs. Sometimes it’s criminal with greed as a motive.


        • Yes, true, but as Chloe Hooper says in this book, arsonists who set fires in the bush, have nothing much to gain from it, not like someone who burns down a house to get the insurance money.


  11. Thanks for the insights – the only true crime (with Garner) you’ll read?! I just finally read Tall Man and think her writing is elegant and compelling – will be reading this one as well.


    • Ah well, I don’t really count this as true crime, it’s nothing like the very few books in that genre that I’ve encountered. It’s very respectful of the victims and of the arsonist and of his family, and you don’t often get that, from what I’ve seen of true crime.
      I don’t think Garner is respectful, and I’m not a fan. The way she inveigled her way into Joe Cinque’s family’s grief so she could write her book was appalling, I thought…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] (Text Publishing) The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin) Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic (Penguin […]


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