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.

©Lisa Hill

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

 


Responses

  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 […]

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  2. looks interesting

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  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….!

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    • The Tall Man is shocking, but necessary.

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  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

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    • 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…

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  5. 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?

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    • 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.

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  6. 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 😉

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    • LOL a quick trip to Readings, eh?

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

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        • Uh… I thought you loved it!

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  7. 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.

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

      Liked by 1 person

  8. 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!

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  9. 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.

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

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

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        • 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.

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  10. 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.

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    • 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

  11. […] (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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  12. […] The Arsonist, a Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper […]

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  13. […] The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper.  Because everybody needs to know about the dangers of unsupervised arsonists. […]

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  14. […] The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, see my review […]

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  15. […] Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (Penguin Random House Australia) (Lisa’s review) […]

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  16. […] The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, see my review […]

    Like

  17. […] Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (non-fiction/Penguin Random House) (Lisa’s review) […]

    Like

  18. […] Arsonist (on my tbr, working its way up on account of all the positive reviews) by Chloe Hooper (ANZ LitLovers LitBlog – review) (Penguin Random […]

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  19. […] be widely read for the insights it offers into the human causes of a catastrophe.  I reviewed it here, and it has since been nominated for The Stella […]

    Like

  20. […] (Behrouz Boochani, trans by Omid Tofighian, Picador) The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton), see my review The Land Before Avocado (Richard Glover, ABC Books) Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to […]

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  21. […] Australian bloggers have reviewed this book including Lisa at ANZ Litlovers and Kate at […]

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  22. […] (Behrouz Boochani, trans by Omid Tofighian, Picador) The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton), see my review The Land Before Avocado (Richard Glover, ABC Books) Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to […]

    Like

  23. […] The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton), see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

    Like

  24. […] Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist: A mind on fire, Hamish Hamilton (on my TBR) (Lisa AnzLitLovers’ review) […]

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  25. […] Inc. • The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, by Chloe Hooper and published by Penguin Books Australia, see my review • The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, by Meredith Lake and published by NewSouth Books […]

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  26. […] 1955–1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell The Arsonist: A mind on fire, by Chloe Hooper (my review) Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (see Sue’s review at Whispering […]

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  27. […] 1955–1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell The Arsonist: A mind on fire, by Chloe Hooper (my review) Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (see Sue’s review at Whispering […]

    Like

  28. […] Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist: A mind on fire, Hamish Hamilton (on my TBR) (Lisa AnzLitLovers’ review) […]

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  29. I’ve finally read this book, written my review and read yours – though I’ve scheduled mine to post later in the week as I already have two posts scheduled earlier. I was intrigued – though I suppose given the book it is it’s not surprising – that we raised some similar issues (shifting sympathies, and the treatment of people who are different)! Anyhow, see what you think when my post posts! I’m so glad I finally read it – even if it was a poor week to choose to read it! I started it just before the real crisis started!

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    • Indeed, what a time to be reading it, her writing about the impact on people is so vivid, I can hear their voices still, even as I write this.

      I went to bed last night to the realisation that a virtual friend of long standing (since 2002!) had had to evacuate, and as the days go by I am adding more and more people to those I am anxious about. If only we could have some decent rain…

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      • If only – we’ve had a few tantalising spots. We’ve had several friends evacuated at the south coast – and evacuated a couple of times. One just had her first hot showed last night since 30 December. But, they still have their homes – so far. Our smoke is not as bad today – only 8 times hazard levels instead of 16 yesterday – but we’ll take that, as the forecast was for it not to reduce until tomorrow.

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        • The smoke’s worse here today, but nowhere near as bad as yours, I think. We had a brief respite from it yesterday which was good because it meant I could take Amber out for a walk. On the scale of misery caused by these fires, a dog’s frustration over a daily walk is nothing, but still, she was a happy little dog as she patrolled ‘her’ neighborhood yesterday.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, we are so frustrated. It was cool yesterday but the smoke was too terrible to work or walk outside
            it’s either been too hot or too smokey or both. But, comparatively speaking we can’t complain can we.

            Talking about a dog’s frustration, a friend’s daughter cam back from the coast last Thursday. Took 9.5 hours instead of 4. Her 21 month old didn’t handle it well! Can you imagine.

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            • Well, actually, I think we should complain. Governments and their co-conspirators need to understand that this is not just a problem in rural areas or tourist places, and that we are collectively livid about the entire impact everywhere. The economic, environmental, and health problems are/will be felt across the nation, and that’s without counting the psychological costs. Australia needs to do three things:
              1. Re-establish our credentials about climate change on the world stage so that we and other middle-ranking nations can pressure the big emitters into reducing their emissions. Unless they do, things will only get worse and large swathes of Australia will become uninhabitable;
              2. Inject a massive amount of money into firefighting equipment, professional personnel, and resources so that we can contain fires when they are small so that they don’t reach the uncontrollable stage. leasing 4 extra water bombers — what were they thinking? We need to *buy* 40 of them, if not more than that. And if this means a nation-wide levy, then I am happy to bear the tax burden preferably by raising the GST by 5% extra so that the burden is shared by the uber-wealthy who pay no tax;
              3. Set up a national reconstruction scheme that includes things like moving the long school holiday season out of the bushfire season, upgrading the road system so that development isn’t permitted in places with only one access road, funding the fireproofing of houses and businesses with research-based retro-fitting and new design codes; funding the ABC’s Emergency Broadcasting so that it doesn’t come out of their regular budget, and upgrading conservation efforts so that the loss of animals in the wild doesn’t mean their extinction.

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              • Oh, I meant personally complain about impositions on us versus people who have lost so much. We can certainly ALL complain and act regarding our government’s (non)decisions and lack of action.

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                • I thought that’s probably what you meant, but the opportunity to get on my soap box was irresistible!

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                • Haha, fair enough Lisa … and I agree with most of your points!

                  Liked by 1 person

  30. Lisa was quite right to predict that Chloe’s books would win a swag of awards. As well as the Prime Minister’s Award, The Arsonist picked up a Special Judge’s Prize in the Victorian Community History Awards at the end of 2019. Run by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Public Record Office Victoria these awards celebrate the exploration and preservation of Victoria’s history. Part of the Judge’s citation says, “Hooper uses a novelist’s skills to evoke the savage fury of the fire, a monster unleashed on a hapless little community, but her writing is anchored in fact; her sources are primarily the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and court records. Her creative narrative represents a compelling way of telling the history of a catastrophe.”

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    • Thanks, Rosemary. It’s a very powerful book and we are so lucky to have writers of the calibre of Chloe Hooper! Her book The Tall Man was impressive too.

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    • Wah, they’ve stolen my review – which is scheduled for Friday (I think!) This is essentially what I’ve written though perhaps not as eloquently and succinctly!

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      • Who have? WordPress?

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        • Oh, haha, no, Lisa … I mean the judges Rosemary has quoted! It sounds like they’ve basically said what I have!

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  31. […] (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring […]

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