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Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

on January 7, 2019

The Arsonist: A Mind On Fire
Chloe Hooper
Penguin Random House AUS
2018, 251p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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.

I’d say almost all Victorians capable of it remember what they were doing on the day that came to be known as Black Saturday – the 7th of February, 2009. It was the culmination of a week or so of unrelenting heat. I remember it vividly for a few reasons, one of which was because it was my birthday. And we were going out to dinner that night with various members of family. We’d been out in the morning to pick up some stuff (a cake I think) and it had already been ridiculously hot. We’d also recently installed air conditioning and as it moved into the early afternoon, it was basically useless and we assumed we’d massively wasted our money. As we drove over the bridge at North Geelong, we caught a glimpse of the temperature gauge – 49 degrees Celsius. Which explained why the air conditioning wasn’t really working. It’s the hottest day I’ve ever experienced but by the time we came out of the restaurant about three or so hours later, it was already down to 19 degrees in Geelong, the massive predicted cool change ripping through. Which should’ve brought relief in many ways but for some of the 400 fires burning throughout the state from a combination of heat, arson, electrical failures etc, it only brought a fresh direction and an injection of oxygen that allowed them to take on an entirely new path of destruction.

I’ve already read one book about Black Saturday – Kinglake 350 by Adrian Hyland, which focuses on the Kinglake-Marysville area. This book by acclaimed author (of both fiction and non-fiction) Chloe Hooper focuses on the La Trobe Valley in Gippsland and the devastation that occurred there from two deliberately lit fires close together, as well as the man accused of lighting them. Perhaps because of location, I knew a lot less about the Gippsland fires than I did about the ones closer to me, up Kinglake and Marysville way – or perhaps because those fires wiped out whole towns. It’s such a devastating day in the state’s history and it’s even worse when you read about the fires that were deliberately lit. It’s one thing when it’s nature – a combination of searing heat, two weather patterns, a 12 year drought that combine. But when it’s someone that takes advantage of those conditions to deliberately cause destruction, it’s hard to take.

There’s a section of this book that details the stories of some of those that lost their lives – paragraph after paragraph of people who stayed behind to defend their houses and how that decision cost them. It’s honestly so hard to read. There’s the story of an older man who survived as the fire passed over his property but he lost his wife. He suffers burns to a significant part of his body and is hospitalised for weeks after the fire. His story is heartbreaking as he has to relive what happened over and over to give his statement, in front of his children who have lost their mother. This was a community that had seen much hardship over the years, not a wealthy community with mostly blue collar workers who struggled to make ends meet. For many of them, insurance wasn’t a priority.

This is not a cut and dried scenario. Police identified their main suspect relatively quickly and easily, which was unusual in a case like this when it could have been literally anyone. The accused is also possibly mentally disabled and most definitely has some form of learning difficulty. It’s possible that if he did it, he didn’t understand the consequences of his own actions. It’s possible he did – and is pretending he didn’t. It’s a really interesting situation and to be honest, nothing came across as clear cut and I’m honestly not sure it ever will. Regardless, he was convicted and is serving time in prison – a woefully inadequate sentence for the families of the affected. At times I was uncomfortable with some of the proceedings. This book is obviously more weighted to those that Hooper was able to talk to and gather information on and she wasn’t able to meet with the accused and at times he remains a bit of a mysterious figure. Both because of his learning difficulties (which seem to vary at different times, depending on who he is talking to and what situation he is in) and because there’s never really much in the way of illumination on the why. If he did it, was it because he didn’t understand what would happen? Or did he understand it and that was the entire point and everything that came after was an act? He was found fit to stand trial but there were times when I wondered about that, given the transcripts of his police interviews. There was also quite a bit in here about defending such a figure and the way in which the press bayed for blood when his name was released and how, even if he were granted bail, he wouldn’t ever be able to return to his home. In court, there were also victim impact statements read out that detailed how the aftermath of Black Saturday lasted well after the fires themselves were finally extinguished with marriage break ups, depression, anxiety, anger. There are fire fighters who weren’t able to work again after some of what they saw. It’s the sort of day that’s the land equivalent of the perfect storm and one you hope to never see again in your lifetime.

It’s always hard to say I enjoyed books like this, because it’s pretty grim from start to finish. But it’s fascinating and very well done. Chloe Hooper does this so well – I think I’m at the stage where I prefer her non-fiction work and I’m a person who doesn’t read a lot of non-fiction. But when I do, it’s stuff like this. It’s brilliantly done but also open ended in that there are things left a bit messy, a bit unknown. Because that’s life, isn’t it?


Book #1 of 2019

The Arsonist is my first title towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.


5 responses to “Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

  1. Jess says:

    Somehow I missed that this book dealt with the Black Saturday Bush Fires; I think I’ll pick up a copy of the book tomorrow now. I’ve read a few books on the fires from that firestorm to date, and have been brought to tears by stories of the survivors and onlookers. About the lives lost and those helpless to do anything about it. I actually researched these fires for my thesis when I was at Uni, but I can’t imagine what it was like to be so close to them.

    • The stories are so hard to read. I found that with Kinglake-350 as well. I think it’s the fact that when things get to a certain stage, there’s nothing people can do. They can be trapped in cars or in their houses, etc. It’s such a futile thing and when fire is so intense, we have very few defences against it.

      It sounds so interesting as a thesis topic!

  2. […] longlist the best crack that I could. I’d already read one, Chloe Hooper’s excellent The Arsonist: A Mind On Fire and my local library was able to help me out with 8 more. There are a couple of titles they […]

  3. […] The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper. My review. […]

  4. […] The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper. Her non-fiction is just….incredible. This was about some of the horrific fires of Black Saturday 2009 in Victoria and it’s rich with the details of some of the stories of those that lost their lives or that were close to people that did. It was also the first book I read in 2019, so it was a powerful way to start the reading year. My review. […]

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