The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

On February 7, 2009 – a day that would become known as Black Saturday – bushfires burned vast areas of Victoria (my home state).  Extreme heat, high winds, low humidity, and severe drought combined to create the worst bushfire conditions in Australia’s recorded history (the heat from the fires was equivalent to 500 atomic bombs exploding).

Black Saturday resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bush-fire event. Across Victoria, 173 people died; more than one million animals (pets, wildlife and stock) perished; over 2,000 houses and 3,500 structures were completely destroyed; and whole towns were razed (Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen, and Flowerdale). The total area burnt was approximately half a million square kilomentres – to put that in perspective, the size of Spain.

The trauma can’t be measured.

Some of the fires were deliberately lit and the man responsible for starting the Central Gippsland fires is the topic of Chloe Hooper’s enthralling book, The Arsonist. Hooper gives a detailed account of the fires, the arson investigation, the arrest of a socially vulnerable man who had not previously been known to police, and his trial.

True crime, by its very nature, provides a compelling narrative but Hooper goes further than simply retelling events in The Arsonist. The detail in her writing is both poetic and terrifyingly clear –

The gum leaves, pliable up to a certain temperature, were like thousands of fingers pointing the way the fire had gone…

Burning birds fell from the sky, igniting the ground where they landed…The aluminium tray of a ute ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.

Hooper skilfully builds the tension (significant given that I knew what happened from the outset), and manages to include the necessary factual information without slipping into pure journalistic reporting –

The arsonist had had no need to set kindling amongst the blue gums. Each tree had made its own pyre. Every summer they drop their bark and branches and leaves, and each year without fire the piles grew higher, and they released toxins to ward off new growth that would compromise their fuel beds. No plant on the planet craves fire like the eucalypt: to live it needs to burn. ‘Gasoline trees’, the Americans call the globulus. Flames release gases that act like propellant, sending fireballs rolling across treetops. The shredding ribbon bark unfurls streamers of fire that travel kilometres on the wind.

What is most impressive about this book is that while Hooper covers so many critical aspects of bushfire and Black Saturday – from the role of fire in land management, and the skill of arson investigators, to Legal Aid, and the psychology of arsonists – she doesn’t lose sight of the intense emotional aspect of the event. In examining questions about guilt, responsibility and ultimately remorse, Hooper considers the impact of the fires from every perspective, moving seamlessly between ‘opposing’ views – the parent grieving a lost child and the grief of the parent whose child lit the fire; the arson investigators, and the defence lawyers.

…we have too much of the wrong kind of fire rather than the burning regimes of the Aborigines, who controlled the environment with low-intensity, mosaic blazes. This intricate knowledge that once maintained the great southern forests is now largely lost. Instead we have feral wildfires: untameable, predatory, beastly. And we have people…who can, at a whim, bring these brutes to life.

The Arsonist has a conclusion of sorts. Brendan Sokaluk was put on trial, convicted, and remains in jail. However, Hooper’s insightful observations give readers much to ponder –

An accident and a compulsion aren’t that far apart. Neither is willed, both are only partially understood.

and ultimately we are reminded that there is no ‘neat ending’ for the people impacted by Black Saturday.

It’s so human, though, the desire to see remorse. The Latin root of this word, remordēre, means ‘to bite back’; it’s the gnawing of one’s conscience. We want the wrongdoer to acknowledge the pain of the bereaved and then to feel some of it. We invented hell for the purpose.

4/5 Has to be a Stella Prize front-runner.

20 responses

  1. Oh wow. I haven’t heard of this book before but it sounds both interesting and terrifying especially since there was very recently a huge fire near us (Camp Fire) which killed 86 people.

  2. Working in the bush on the other side of the continent I don’t think I had internalized just how many people died in the Black Saturday fires. Terrifying to think that those ‘worst’ conditions will probably be repeated every year from now on.

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