Monday, 11 August 2008

Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man is a commendable work of literary journalism about the Palm Island death of an aboriginal man.

I read the book during a recent short break in Queensland and this circumstance added colour to my reading. It's a little harsh to condemn northerners for lacking sophistication, and I won't do this.

Hooper goes as far, and gives to the policeman involved, Senior Sargeant Christopher Hurley, what is due to his actual good works among aborigines, especially during stints - prior to his stint at Palm Island - in the Top End.

In a landscape where you fret for a child lest it get too close to the water - crocodiles - or too close to the bush - snakes - things that we take for granted can seem a bit precious.

Noel Pearson's familiar complaints about how unemployed aboriginal men behave need no more than a marker here. To show that we're all familiar with the 'issues'. And Hooper doesn't paper over the cracks.

What she does do is to observe the aborigines of Palm Island - especially Mulrunji Doomadgee's extended family - as though they were citizens with equal substance and standing in the community as the police who she watches at the Brisbane Broncos clubhouse mustering support for 'one of their own'.

Just prior to reading this book I finished a biography of the literary journalist Martha Gellhorn. The contrast between the 'old school' of Gellhorn - who did a lot of coverage of WWII - and Hooper's equitable method is tonic.

Gellhorn never didn't take sides. Hooper refuses to, and her book - which in her cover blurb Helen Garner says is "enthralling" and "studded with superbly observed detail" - is all the richer for it.

I actually picked up this book at Readings while in Carlton last weekend. The smooth Melbourne shimmer just added to my pleasure in reading Hooper's lovely work.

Robert Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land contains a 'type' of individual called a 'Fair Witness' - a highly paid, respected observer who refuses to make assumptions beyond what can be perceived.

Hooper in The Tall Man proves that she is to be Australia's next Fair Witness.


kimbofo said...

Thanks for letting me know about this review. It does sound like a good book -- and one I'd enjoy.

Anonymous said...

It is definitely a well written book. However I adopt the comments in another review:

"I've seen the book praised for its even-handedness, for not taking sides. In my view such praise is misplaced. Chloe Hooper combines a journalist's attention to evidence with a novelist's eye for the telling detail. She is careful to give the process of law its full due and at no stage makes an explicit judgement contrary to the jury's findings. Given that Senior Sergeant Hurley, the tall and bulky policeman at the centre of things, wouldn't talk to her, she does a very good job of conveying a sense of him as a human being -- a generous, thoughtful man under incredible pressure of many kinds. But it's very clear that her sympathies lie with the bereaved Doomadgee family, and it's very easy in the final pages for a reader to come to conclusions that are at odds with those of the jury."

Now that the Supreme Court of Appeal has overturned the Coroner's findings and revealed that the medical evidence unequivocally rejected the idea that punches could have caused the fatal injury but the Coroner failed to mention that in the report the book has further context to consider it in.

Matt da Silva said...

Yes, I think you're right. But why does a book need to be completely unbiassed. What I was talking about in the review was the rabid bias of the previous generation - the type of bias that causes you to roll your eyes in your head.

I think Hooper tries - as does Helen garner, another journo generally unable to talk to one of the parties (in two books, in fact) - to display the merits of both cases. I think it's possibly too much to ask that she does not take sides herself.

Anonymous said...

(the same anonymous)

I think you are right in everything you say in the most recent post.

She clearly attempts to make positive comments about both sides and attempt to display some empathy. However the incident was something which divided people and something people felt very strongly about. On such a topic it is impossible not to take sides and in the circumstances probably impossible for her to be completely even handed even while making a genuine attempt to display the merits of both cases.

You are correct that this shouldn't be held against her but many reviews conflate her attempt to be even handed with actual even handedness.

Perhaps I'm being pedantic as an excuse to talk about the most recent startling event. The whole thing had more twists and turns than a roller coaster. The Supreme Court finding hit the news but was barely covered. Basically the reports merely informed us that the Supreme Court had affirmed that the Coroner's report was overturned and another Coroner would need to consider the matter.

I didn't realise the Court decision had any significance until I stumbled upon it a few days ago. The Supreme Court assertion that the medical evidence before the Coroner unequivocally refuted punching as a cause of death but the Coroner failed to mention that in her report to me (unlike the mass media) seems very newsworthy (the words 'explosive revelation' come to mind). The Coroner found that Hurley punched Mulrunji to death (something considered very newsworthy and reported in vivid detail). When the DPP didn't agree a major Australian controversy was kicked off.

Matt da Silva said...

Yes you're correct about the complexity and peoples' complete and utter confusion. If Mulrunji wasn't killed by a punch how was his liver split in two??

You know I think that there needs to be a blog post detailing this. If you want to write one, you and I could help to edit it and we could post it here on HA.

I think that a lot of the misbalance would disappear if genuine Aboriginal disadvantage were able to be addressed better. And if reconciliation were actually more successful. I think that people like Hooper would change their tune if more Aussies got on the cart and started taking "Sorry" more to heart.

Anonymous said...

Here here.