After a deadly fire roared through 26,000 hectares of plantation, state forest and private property in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley on Black Saturday, Chloe Hooper felt the way investigating scientists talked of it – ‘flank, head, back, tongue, tail’ – made the fire sound like a beast. ‘Hell’ was another word for it.
Hooper had arrived in town shortly after the fire, the smell of burnt eucalypt still in the air, to begin her own investigation into the events that unfolded that scorching February day in 2009 and into the man accused of lighting the fire, regarded by some as one of Australia’s worst mass murderers.
The result, her book The Arsonist, is an enthralling and deeply fascinating story about a huge tragedy that befell a small community, one that not only conveys the horror of a fire that cremated all before it, but asks questions about guilt, remorse and responsibility. Not all are easily answered.
From the opening pages of The Arsonist, the fire and its intense, incendiary power bursts onto the page: There’s a man who saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast,’ Hooper writes. ‘Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. The aluminium tray of a ute ran in rivulets to the ground.’ Sunglasses melted. ‘Everything was blood red.’
The same remarkable investigative powers and balanced, journalistic approach that won Hooper a Walkley, Australian journalism’s highest award, for her bestseller, The Tall Man, are again on display in The Arsonist. Hooper digs like the intrepid reporter she is, asking questions, getting people to open up, gaining their trust, but always with respect and sensitivity. ‘I regarded it as an honour,’ she said on radio about people’s decision to talk to her about their experiences.
There’s also the fascinating forensics of fire. Who knew there was such a thing as a wildfire investigator or fire scientists? Or that you can map your way to the fire’s origin (and its likely cause), by observing the signs of leaf freeze, soot levels and scorch patterns? That white ash is the hallmark of complete combustion?
From very early on in the story you know the fire that broke out 7 February in 2009 was almost certainly deliberately lit. The hunt for the person responsible is driven by two questions: Who and why? Crime is so often the result of disfunction and disadvantage and arson is no different. Only about 1% of arsonists however, are ever brought to justice in Australia.
In the hunt for the arsonist, Hooper’s investigation expands from the police, the scientists and the defence lawyers to include the families of the victims and even the family of Brendan Sokaluk, the man charged with lighting the fire.
His life story is the conundrum at the heart of The Arsonist, and central to his trial. On the one hand he’s the young man who’s never had a chance, a complete outsider, bullied and excluded throughout childhood. Eventually diagnosed as autistic, he seems to have trouble understanding what’s going on and appears child-like – his favourite TV programs are Bob The Builder and Thomas The Tank Engine. He thinks the judge with his wig and gown looks like Father Christmas. And the poignant sight of him carrying his beloved dog Brockie in his arms like a baby so that his paws aren’t burnt by the scorched earth after the fire, seems to indicate he is capable of feeling affection and compassion.
Whereas the police and prosecutor and many locals take the opposite view, convinced as they are that he is cunning and calculated and there are reports from ex-colleagues who found him belligerent, spiteful and threatening. They were scared of him, they said.
Not for one second though does Hooper lose sight of the cruel and senseless loss inflicted by the fire and of the courage of those who have to keep living and moving forward. There’s a pet family horse, incinerated. A man who finds his resident koala burned to death at the base of a tree. Lives forever broken not only by grief, but by the horror of losing loved ones to a terrible, unimaginable death.
As Hooper has commented: ‘Fires keep burning in another dimension.’
Already 2018 has been a bumper year for some wonderful Australian writing and with the publication of The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, the standard just went up again.
Don’t miss it.
About the author
Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008) won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing, and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. She is also the author of two novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Engagement.