Monday, 21 October 2019

Book review: The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper (2018)

If you wanted to look at this work of creative nonfiction through a narrow lens you could say that it is about the Black Saturday fires of 2009 and the man who was accused of setting them. But given this is Chloe Hooper doing the work you will likely take a wider view and look at the story as an allegory.

The man at the centre of the drama, Brendan Sokaluk, turns out to be someone with particular problems and he is evidently intellectually challenged. But it is his tendency to indulge in irrational, unpredictable, and aggressive behaviour that make it easy to see Brendan as more than just a suspect arsonist. In my mind he was a stand-in for Everyman, the people we turn into when we think no-one else can see us, or when we don’t care what people think of us, or when we hide behind anonymity online.

And then there are the others in the small rural town, who aim their hatred at Brendan. The irrational is embodied in the people in the community Sokaluk lived in, the everyday Australians in this poor part of the country who helped to form the social fabric that provides a foundation upon which the rest of the narrative lies.

Hooper’s book offers Australians a challenge in the form of a question. If we have basic freedoms and human rights enshrined in law, law that applies to everyone equally, then why do we abuse that freedom by bullying people who are different and by committing crimes that can lead to suffering and, even, to death? Freedom is thus a double-edged sword and Hooper illustrates this conundrum in her masterful work.

In it you find tinder-dry bush in a summer that had followed a decade of low rainfall. This combination of factors made the eruption of the bushfire seem almost inevitable, especially given that some people are prone to set fires deliberately. Just as the likelihood of cataclysmic effects of climate change seem inevitable in the light of the political systems and the commercial imperatives that drive communities, made up of imperfect individuals who are competitive and who are motivated, by greed, to behave in the ways they do. The difference in the two cases being that our actions with regard to the environment and climate change were not deliberate but are and have been, instead, a by-product of our struggle to survive.

Hooper is prone to make you think, which is why I like her writing, especially her nonfiction, so much. This book took over a decade to write and if you know what is involved in making a finished product of this nature, you can only marvel at Hooper’s persistence and her drive to unearth the truth.

Whether she succeeded in achieving her ambition is something each reader will have to decide for him- or herself. It is something of a puzzle why this book has not been more talked-about in the public sphere, especially considering how it touches on the topical issue of anthropogenic climate change. ‘The Tall Man’, Hooper’s previous nonfiction work, was more prominent following its publication in 2008.

From my perspective, I felt that, in just over 250 pages of concise and well-edited prose, Hooper in ‘The Arsonist’ provides a striking type of portrait of the species. And it’s not flattering. Not in the least bit.

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