Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Title: The Arsonist: Mind on Fire

Author: Chloe Hooper

Published: 15th October 2018, Viking

Status: Read December 2020

++++++

My Thoughts:

Bushfires are practically synonymous with Summer in Australia, and there have been several severe and deadly conflagrations since its settlement including the recent large scale fire of 2019/2020. Of these blazes however, Black Saturday has the dubious distinction of claiming the most lives in recorded history.

On Saturday 7th February 2009, as temperatures soared to the mid 40’s, there were as many as four hundred separate fires burning in Victoria. By the time they were extinguished 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) of land had been razed, over 3500 structures (including homes, commercial premises, and agricultural buildings) were destroyed, stock and crops were lost, and 173 people lost their lives while hundreds more were injured.

One of the blazes, known as The Churchill Complex fire, started in the early afternoon on 7 February 2009 in the Latrobe Valley. The fire travelled rapidly, impacting on several towns in south east Victoria. Eleven people died as a result of the fire, 145 houses were destroyed, and more than 25,861 hectares were burnt. Less than a week after the fire began, investigators were able to determine that it was caused by arson.

In The Arsonist: Mind on Fire, Chloe Hooper tells the story of this disastrous event, and its devastating impact on its victims. She then details the investigation that identified Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local, as responsible, and his subsequent trial and conviction.

The statements from those that lost loved one’s, and property, are heartbreaking to read. Survivors, including the rural firefighters who fought the blaze, were forever changed by their confrontation with the fire, and the event continued to take a toll long after the fire was extinguished.

In Australia, Hooper reports, around 13% of vegetation fires are maliciously lit and it’s estimated that only one per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught. This is often because the fires are started in unpopulated areas, and the subsequent blaze conveniently destroys any evidence that may have remained. In the case of the Churchill Complex fire, investigators quickly suspected arson was at play and their attention was drawn to the suspicious behaviour of a man identified as Brendan Sokaluk.

Hooper takes us through the investigation, drawing on a number of perspectives to show how the police reached their conclusions about the cause of the fire, and who was to blame. Brendan Sokaluk, a 39 year old local resident, was seen in the area of ignition, by multiple witnesses, and met the general profile of an arsonist – he was from a disadvantaged background, unemployed, and anti social. During his initial interview, Sokaluk confessed to setting the fire ‘accidentally’, and then retracted his admission, but while it became clear to officers that Brendan had some level of cognitive deficiency, several suspected he was exaggerating his inability to comprehend the investigating detectives questions. Nevertheless the police felt they had enough information to charge Sokaluk with ten counts of arson causing death, and 181 other charges, the majority relating to criminal damage (plus a charge of possession for child pornography found on his computer that was later dropped).

While a psychiatric assessment declared Sokaluk fit to stand trial, his lawyers were never confident that he understood the gravity of the charges against him, nor the mechanics of the legal proceedings. Brendan never took the stand, and no true motive for starting the fire was ever established. The trial began in 2011, nearly three years after Sokaluk’s arrest, and Hooper leads the reader through the process that eventually saw him convicted and sentenced to 17 years plus time served (3 years). With his fourteen year minimum, Sokaluk will be eligible for parole in 2023.

I found The Arsonist to be a well-written and balanced account of Black Saturday, though I was expecting Hooper would a provide a little more detail and context to the disaster itself. I do think her reportage on the investigation was concise, and of the trial, nuanced. She is respectful of those who were most affected by the blaze, but not without empathy for Brendan Sokaluk and his family.

Fire is a merciless beast, one the Australian landscape is particularly susceptible to, especially as we head towards even more extreme temperatures in a changing climate. Having ignored much of the Aboriginal wisdom in managing the land with fire, there is ample fuel for people to ignite for any one of the complicated reasons arsonists do so, and Hooper suggests we ignore the risks at our peril.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Izabel Brekilien
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 03:18:57

    Great review – I understand how this can be a major problem in Australia. If often (not this year, though, I think ?) in the south of France too.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. Tina
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 04:51:11

    That sounds like a fascinating story. If I get my hands on a copy I will add it to my nonfiction pile for next year. Such devastaing fires, I had no idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  3. Helen Murdoch
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 05:33:23

    As you know, we are also very familiar with fires here in Santa Barbara, CA. It would be interesting, but tough to read an account of the investigation into our largest fire

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  4. BookerTalk
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 05:46:24

    I bought this for my husband last year really hoping I could “borrow’ it when he was done but he still hasn’t picked it up yet…….. Sigh. It must be awful for the people who lost relatives and property not to get a full explanation for why this guy started the fire.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  5. Jessica
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 10:35:42

    I loved your review! You give a very nice amount of detail about the book, and I’m very happy to hear you say that Hooper didn’t villainize anyone (more than they already have been, anyway). As a non-Australian I know very little about this, so I feel like The Arsonist would be a good book to pick up and learn something.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  6. Jennifer
    Dec 24, 2020 @ 12:18:08

    Great review, Shelleyrae, and I really want to read this.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  7. M (the long hot spell)
    Dec 26, 2020 @ 12:20:58

    It actually sounds like an excellent read, and it will remain on my to-read list for now. But I admit I’m not sure if I could take it, you know? So tragic. Your review was great.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  8. Trackback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #SundayPost #SundaySalon | book'd out
  9. Trackback: Non-Fiction (General) Round Up: December 2020 and Yearly Wrap Up | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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