Chloe Hooper, author of the acclaimed The Tall Man, returns with a fascinating and compelling chronicle of the Black Saturday fires.
Victoria experienced some of its worst bush fires in 2009. The so-called Black Saturday fires in the Latrobe Valley town of Churchill killed 173 people. The conflagration, a court found, was started deliberately by Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local.
Chloe Hooper’s chronicle of the fire, the detective work to find the culprit and the ensuing court case reads like a crime thriller. At the centre of the mystery is the child-like Brendan Sokaluk who never admits to intentionally lighting the fire. He maintains that he may have started it, by throwing a cigarette out a window. Sokaluk has very poor cognitive and social skills (although he is a skilled map drawer and has a superb memory for locations). During the trial, he appears totally unaware of what is happening around him, doodling with pen and paper during the proceedings and making childish jokes.
The Latrobe Valley backdrop to this terrible crime – its decomissioned Hazelwood power station, the poverty and lack of opportunity the area provides – makes for a fascination socio-economic portrait. When towns lose their main source of jobs and income, a brooding sense of hopelessness pervades everything, even the environment.
With its mix of detective mystery, social history and environmental science,The Arsonist is a story of Australia today.
Rivetting, fascinating and full of brilliant research.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, by Chloe Hooper. Hamish Hamilton $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba