Review: Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Title: Other People’s Houses

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Published: 3rd March 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Imagining the life that could have been as she wanders through ‘open houses’ on Sydney’s north shore every weekend is just one of the ways Kate Webb copes with the ‘incident’. So is drinking every night until she passes out. One afternoon, as she pockets a pebble for her collection of mementos, Kate overhears the estate agent talking about an exclusive listing. Walking through the front door of the ‘Harding House’, Kate loses herself in the fantasy of living in the large, beautifully appointed mansion, and for a heart stopping moment when she spies a photograph of the family that lives in the home, she imagines their teenage son is her own, sparking an obsession that soon spirals out of control.

Kate is not a character to admire, she’s a drunk, and as such is self-serving and frequently reckless. However, it’s impossible to condemn her completely, her loss – referred to as the incident- is an unimaginable tragedy. Grief is a personal thing and while ten years mired in self-pity, anger and depression may seem excessive, when you know the full story, I dare you to judge her.

That said there is only the barest of justifications for Kate’s obsession with the Harding family – Pip, Brett and their son, Kingsley – though she is in such a state it’s not like she needs much. In theory her heart could be said to be in the right place, but her thinking is so disorganised that Kate triggers a hellish mess when she interferes. Hawkins builds the suspense as Kate blunders around, making the situation worse for herself, and the Harding’s.

To be honest I cared more about Kate’s fate than any one else’s, and it was mostly my investment in her emotional turmoil that kept me turning the pages. I didn’t find the major reveal to be a surprise, but the confrontation that followed was tense and the conclusion was satisfying.

Offering a compelling protagonist and an interesting storyline, I really enjoyed Other People’s Houses. This is a well-crafted crime fiction debut from Kelli Hawkins.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan

Title: With My Little Eye

Author: Sandra Hogan

Published: 3rd February 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

With My Little Eye is a fascinating biography by Sandra Hogan of a suburban Australian family of spies.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed in June 1949 by then Prime Minister Ben Chiefly in response to the discovery through a series of decoded Soviet cables—known as the Venona intercepts—that Soviet spies were active in Australia. During its formative years ASIO’s main focus was on finding and breaking the Russian spy ring, in an operation known as ‘the Case’.

Dudley Doherty, a former supply clerk in the Australian army, was one of the first ASIO officers, joining the agency in November 1949. His new bride, a secretary at the time, joined him at Algincourt, the NSW building that housed ASIO headquarters, in 1950, transcribing intercepted telephone calls. Later that year, the young couple became essential players in Operation Smile, ASIO’s first covert bugging operation. Housed in the apartment above Fedor Nosov, who represented Soviet news agency TASS, Joan’s job was to listen and transcribe any conversation from the flat below, usually accompanied by another officer, while Dudley continued his work elsewhere.

Mark (b. 1951) and Sue-Ellen (b.1953) were born in that same apartment, and though Joan officially resigned from ASIO in late 1953, she continued to assist her husband with his duties when he was transferred to Brisbane, which included hosting former Russian intelligence agents turned defectors, Captain Evdokia Petrov and husband Colonel Vladimir for two months as a safety precaution during the 1956 Olympics held in Melbourne.

“In Brisbane… Joan kept house and raised her children [Amanda was born in 1958] while Dudley went out to work – just like all the other housewives. Except Joan was training her kids in espionage and keeping a careful watch on her neighbours.”

While most intelligence officers keep their work secret, often even their spouse are unaware their partner is a spy, Dudley and Joan ran a ‘family operation’. From birth they were props as their mother eavesdropped in cafe’s, or their father took photos of them at parades. The children were taught to look for people or cars that may be out of place, to recall details of faces and places, to memorise number plates, and never draw attention to themselves. Their parents made many of these activities seem like fun, and Hogan details some of the ‘games’ the family ‘played’, but spy craft is a serious business, and in the Doherty family, work always came first. There were a lot of rules, the most important of which was to maintain secrecy. The children could never question their father, nor his orders, and could not talk about any activity outside of the family.

“Forgetting their childhoods had been essential for their survival, but it came at a cost.”

For Sue-Ellen life as a child spy was complicated, though she proved to have an excellent observation skills and memory, she was not suited to the introverted life. Though she, like her siblings, adhered to the family rules, she resented the many secrets she was forced to keep, despite always being inordinately proud of her father. His sudden death from a heart attack in 1970 when Sue-Ellen was 17 left her devastated. Absent from the family home at the time, Sue-Ellen became convinced her father had not died but had simply gone into deep cover for some undisclosed mission, a belief she held until in her late forties, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It was then that she began to search for information about her father, hoping to learn more about him and make some sense of her childhood, eventually approaching journalist Sandra Hogan for help. Hogan met with Sue-Ellen several times, however information and provable facts were hard to find so the project stalled. It wasn’t until 2011 when ASIO commissioned a book to detail the official history of the organisation (The Spy Catchers pub. 2014), for which Sue-Ellen’s mother, Joan, was interviewed, that Sue-Ellen began to make peace with her childhood.

“When something cannot be talked about, it is hard to believe it’s real. Now there was no doubt about it.”

With some of the secrecy veil lifted, Sue-Ellen and her siblings, who were finally able to talk more freely about their childhood, and gain a fuller picture of the man who was their father. Hogan draws on these conversations, Joan’s memories, interviews with the few of Dudley’s contemporaries still alive, declassified documents and relevant public sources to tell their extraordinary story.

There are flashes of humour in this unusual biography, but I most often found it rather poignant. With My Little Eye is a fascinating account of an unusual family, and their unique role during the infancy of ASIO.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Click below for your chance to win a copy! 

Review: The Push by Ashley Audrain

 


Title: The Push

Author: Ashley Audrain

Published: 7th January 2021, Michael Joseph

Status, Read January 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

“I would be different. I would be like other women for whom it all came so easily. I would be everything my own mother was not.”

Blythe is anxious about impending motherhood but determined to break the cycle of indifference and neglect that characterised her own relationship with her mother, and her mother’s before that. Violet’s arrival leaves Blythe awestruck, but within a week of the birth of her daughter, in pain and exhausted from lack of sleep, she is convinced she is doing everything wrong, that she cannot be a good mother, and that Violet knows it.

Exploring the question of nature vs nurture, the experience of motherhood, inter-generational trauma and mental health, The Push is a compulsive, chilling debut from Ashley Audrain.

“This is my side of the story.”

Unfolding from Blythe’s first person perspective, I think parents in particular will find something to relate to in Blythe’s early experiences of motherhood, whether it be a fleeting thought, or something more profound. For me those early weeks and months with a newborn are now mostly a blur, but I do remember the concern (that never really leaves you) about my ability to be good mother. Blythe’s initial anxiety therefore seems reasonable, especially as information about her own tragic background is revealed, but as Blythe begins to view Violet, barely a toddler, as an active agent of her angst, empathy slowly begins to drain away.

“I couldn’t tell you the truth: that I believed there was something wrong with our daughter. You thought the problem was me.”

Blythe’s husband, Fox, is at first largely supportive of his wife’s anxiety but he is certainly not willing to entertain Blythe’s idea that Violet is anything but a sweet, blameless child. Audrain capitalises on the ambiguity and as Blythe’s credibility wavers, the tension thickens. The uncertainty is a feature of the plot, it’s unsettling to not know if Blythe can be trusted, and the alternative, to believe her, is just as, if not more disquieting.

The Push has quite an impact, this is a disturbing, poignant, and gripping novel.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The Women and the Girls by Laura Bloom

Title: The Women and the Girls

Author: Laura Bloom

Published: 19th January 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in Australia in the late 1970’s, The Women and the Girls is a thoughtful and engaging novel about self discovery and friendship from Laura Bloom.

No longer able to withstand her domineering husband, recent British immigrant Carol finds an unexpected ally in Anna when she makes the decision to leave him. Anna, who has just made the decision to leave her own husband, offers Carol refuge with her at an investment property she owns and then Libby, desperate for a change in the status quo of her marriage, impulsively decides to join them.

Told with heart and humour, Bloom shares the journey of these three women as they attempt to forge a new life for themselves, and their children. I thought the characterisation of each woman was well-rounded, exploring their strengths and flaws in a nuanced manner. While they each have different reasons for leaving their husbands, Carol, Anna and Libby are all essentially on a similar quest of self discovery, and are fortunate to have found an ally in each other.

Bloom’s portrayal of female friendships in this novel is quite wonderful, the women are really little more than acquaintances when they first begin living together but they are effortlessly supportive of one another. Even if they don’t always agree, the consideration and respect of their relationships contrasts sharply with Carol and Libby’s experience in their respective marriages in a time when women were just beginning to realise that being a wife and mother didn’t negate their autonomy.

Though I was only a young child in the 1970’s (I was born in 1973) I feel like Bloom captured the era well with her descriptions of hair and fashion, the affection for ABBA, the velvet couches, and fondue. Bloom also explores the dichotomy that characterised the period, for though the decade saw rapid social progress for womens’ rights in Australia, casual, and pointed, misogyny remained rife. The introduction of ‘no fault’ laws in 1976 saw the divorce rate triple (reaching a record high that still stands), yet in 1977 married women could not open a bank account without their husband’s permission.

The Women and the Girls is a well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking read, that should have cross generational appeal.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell

 



Title: The Stranger Times

Author: C.K. McDonnell

Published: 14th January 2021, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

The premise of Caimh McDonnell’s novel caught my attention because as a teenager I discovered a UK magazine called The Fortean Times, which reported on ‘weird news’ (and still does as far as I know) and went to great trouble and expense to have it imported by my local newsagent for a year or two.

“Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences, using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply.”

Similarly, the titular ‘The Stranger Times’ is a weekly newspaper devoted to the weird and wonderful. When Hannah Willis, newly separated and desperate, answers an ad for a position at The Stranger Times she has no idea what it may entail, but she is not expecting to find a man threatening to throw himself off the roof, a wannabe reporter named Simon lurking by the entrance, and then for her new boss, Vince Bancroft, to set fire to his office and shoot himself in the foot during her interview. Still, Hannah needs a job and this is the only one on offer.

“We aren’t reporting the story as fact; we’re reporting the existence of the story as fact.”

Though Hannah doesn’t believe in the litany of the strange and implausible that The Stranger Times reports on that’s all about to change when, after Simon is found dead at the base of a construction tower, the staff of The Stranger Times becomes the target of a killer, who has a vicious beast at his command.

“Because, sweetheart, you ain’t never met a short-arsed slaphead quite like me.”

The Stranger Times is an entertaining urban fantasy novel. Set in Manchester, McDonnell introduces a shadow world that lurks amongst ours, where folk hide in plain sight. One of these folk has gone rogue, breaking a centuries old Accord, and the staff of The Stranger Times gets in the way of his plans for murder and mayhem. But no matter what happens, the paper still needs to go out.

The staff of The Stranger Times are an eccentric bunch, editor Vince Bancroft is a barely functioning alcoholic in a permanent bad temper, flatmates Ox and Reggie are feature writers, specialists in the supernatural and extraterrestrial, Stella is a teenage runaway, and pious Grace is the paper’s office manager. I loved their unique personality’s, and their group dynamic which is delightfully dysfunctional.

Though it gets off to a bit of a slow start I was quickly caught up in this witty, weird and wonderful romp full of magic, mystery and monsters. Read all about it in The Stranger Times!

++++++

Available from Bantam Press UK

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

Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

Title: Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Author: Sue Williams

Published: 5th January 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Based on the lives of Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Macquarie, the wife of Australian colonel governor Lachlan Macquarie, and Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of a prosperous colonial woolgrower, Sue Williams blends fact with fiction to present an interesting story of adversity, courage, love, and friendship in Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

Thirty one year old Betsey Macquarie arrived in Sydneytown with her new husband, Lachlan, who was to replace Captain Bligh as governor, in December of 1809. Viewing the appointment as an adventure, with her keen interest in architecture, landscaping and social welfare, Betsey had hopes of working alongside her husband to grow the colony.

At the time of Betsey’s arrival in New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur, had been living in the colony for twenty years. Her husband John, a Corps officer and successful grazier had been called to England to answer charges of sedition for his role in unseating Captain Bligh, leaving Elizabeth to manage their home farm, three daughters, and Camden Park estate, where they raised their valuable flock of merino sheep.

In this novel Williams conjures a friendship between the two women that overlooks the political enmity of their husbands. Both intelligent, strong, and practical women, Elizabeth and Elizabeth grow to respect and admire one another despite their differences, and become confidantes. The friendship is delightfully rendered by Williams, and permits her to present a well-rounded picture of the ‘Elizabeth’s’ lives, disabusing history’s notion they were simply no more than extensions of their husbands.

History favours the role of men in the building of our nation, but Elizabeth & Elizabeth gives these two women credit for contributions to the betterment of the colony. Williams suggests Betsey was the driving force behind the design and construction of several of Sydneytown’s public buildings, including The Courthouse and St James Church, the ‘Rum’ Hospital, and The Female Factory in Parramatta, and the development of what is now known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Her support of her husband was also crucial to his many accomplishments as governor, despite the opposition he faced from ‘exclusivists’. Elizabeth Macarthur’s role in developing the family’s wool export business is better recognised today, though her husband continues to garner the lions share of credit. In her husband’s long absence from the colony however, she ably managed their extensive holdings, and oversaw the improvement of the merino flock that solidified their fortune.

Well-written, rich in historical detail and engaging, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is a lovely novel and recommended reading especially for those interested in Australia’s past.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Review: When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Published: 29th December 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

Inspired by Gina Wilkinson’s own experiences as a diplomat’s wife in Iraq, When the Apricots Bloom is a thought-provoking and moving story about loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.

Set in Baghdad in 2002, the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three women – Ally, the wife of an Australian ambassador; Huda, Ally’s husband’s secretary; and Raina, Huda’s childhood friend.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is defined by loss, suspicion, and fear, the mukhabarat lurk everywhere looking for any sign of disloyalty to their ‘great leader’, visiting swift and brutal punishment on anyone who dare to speak against him. Listening devices are used routinely in homes and public spaces, dissidents disappear, or are made examples of. Americans are banned from the country, and representatives of other western countries, particularly women, are barely tolerated.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you? Two can keep a secret only when one of them is dead.”

By failing to declare her dual citizenship, and her previous career as a journalist, Ally is in a precarious position that only worsens when she attempts to learn more about her late mother, who thirty years earlier spent time as a nurse in Baghdad. Naive regarding the risks to both herself, her husband, and anyone else she involves in her task, Ally will be forced to make a difficult choice.

When ordered by the mukhabarat (secret police) to befriend Ally and learn her secrets, Huda, whose husband is unemployed after the country’s economic collapse, has no other choice but to agree if she is to keep her teenage son safe from being conscripted into the fedayeen (death squad). As the police apply increasing pressure for information, Huda grows desperate, and demands help from Raina, once her closest childhood friend, whom she holds responsible for the execution of her brothers.

A sheik’s daughter, now an art dealer, whose family’s wealth and influence has dwindled to almost nothing, Raina is also worried for her daughter’s safety when one of Hussein’s son’s expresses interest in fourteen year old Hanan. She has little to offer Huda, but suggests the two women together can find a way to save their children.

“If the blood oath is broken,” she declared theatrically, “then the penalty is sorrow.” “Sorrow for the oath breaker,” she declared, “and for the generation that follows her.”

Demonstrating that women the world over will do what they must to protect their children, When the Apricots Bloom explores the circumstances in which Huda, Raina and Ally find themselves in, caught between the past and the future, forced to choose between duty and love.

The three main characters of When the Apricots Bloom are well-developed, though it was Huda who I found the most interesting, and whose fate I cared more for. Ally and Raina have protections, and choices, that Huda does not, and as such I considered her the braver of the trio. Huda is forced to walk such a thin line, I felt tense each time she was confronted by the mukhabarat, and my heart was in my throat during the final scenes.

Wilkinson’s insights into the daily life of Iraqi citizens under Hussein’s totalitarian rule are fascinating, portraying a country crippled by war, an economy destroyed by sanctions, and a populace oppressed by terror, all contrasting sharply to the glimpses of life in Baghdad before Hussein’s rise to power. Abandoning their country is nevertheless a wrench for the Huda and Raina, and Ally is disappointed to leave without answers to her questions.

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom. Alas, the world is not perfect.”

Expressive, evocative, and convincingly authentic, I found When the Apricots Bloom to be an absorbing read.

+++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

Review: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely by Jessica Dettmann

Title: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Author: Jessica Dettmann

Published: 6th January 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, Jessica Dettmann’s sophomore novel, was my first read for the new year, and happily, an ideal selection.

Witty, warm, sharp and sincere, this is a story of responsibilities, regrets, secrets, anxieties, dreams and dysfunction, as the family of Annie Jones, which includes her three adult children, their partners and offspring, her ex-husband, and the man he left her for, gathers under the same roof for Annie’s father’s funeral in the days before Christmas.

No family is without complications, but at this particular moment, Annie’s can be said to have more complications than most. Though she had imagined that with her father’s passing she would finally be free to pursue her own dreams, as the week unfolds, Annie begins to doubt that escaping the needs of her family will ever a possibility.

I quickly became invested in the characters of This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, even though I had little in common with them. They are realistic and nuanced, as are the dynamics between them. Annie garnered my complete sympathy, her daughter, Molly, not so much. I felt sorry for Simon’s wife, Diana, while Annie’s friend, Jane, made me laugh.

Taking place in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney over the Christmas period, the details of the setting are very familiar, as I spent several summer holidays with cousins who lived in the same area. We too made the daily pilgrimages to the beach, ate meals in the back yard, and played hide and seek among the plumbago.

Dettmann’s writing is perceptive, tender and poignant, deftly portraying the complexities of the modern family, and exploring themes of choice, resentment, expectation, freedom, and creativity. An absolutely lovely read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

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

Previous Older Entries