Book Review: “The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire” by Chloe Hooper (@PenguinBooksAus)

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, by Chloe Hooper, was awarded a Judge’s Special Prize in the 2019 Victorian Community Awards. When the Royal Historical Society of Victoria launched its History Bookclub in March 2020, it was their first chosen read.

History remains interesting because we are much more than what happened to us. How we record, re-write and re-interpret our history at personal and public levels is highly relevant – it reveals how we function as individuals and part of our community.

The Arsonist is a powerful and detailed account of the fires on the outskirts of Churchill in Central Gippsland on February 7, 2009, which killed 11 people and torched 82,000 acres of land. We remember this as part of the Black Saturday bushfires.

The book focuses on the hunt, arrest, trial and conviction of Brendan Sokaluk, who lit two fires and then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. Much of the writing is dedicated to navigating the strange puzzle of his mind.

Growing up with autism spectrum disorder in a small town in Latrobe Valley, Sokaluk suffered horrendous abuse and discrimination in school and at work. Because he cannot understand how others think and feel, his social and interpersonal skills are poor. He is frequently treated with disdain and all kinds of prejudiced assumptions.

In an attempt to understand Sokaluk as an individual, the author interviewed both those who tried to clear his name and those who wanted to lock him up. The result is a vivid portrayal of a person whose actions caused devastation, whose motives remain opaque, but whose life experiences defy stereotypes.

The author further interviewed various members of the arson squad and Sokaluk’s legal team, and presented them as men and women in search of truth and justice. These are highly skilled professionals who take pride and responsibility for their work. Yet, they can be distressed and even traumatised by what they find and fight for.

Most importantly, through the testimonies of survivors, as well as the thoughts and emotions of those detectives, forensic scientists and crime scene experts recorded in this book, we see the issues are not limited to who lit the fires and why.

Instead, ours is a country defined and sustained by fire, and how we manage it can shape our future. Particularly in Latrobe Valley, where the world’s largest brown coal deposits exist – and where many families and communities are still socially and economically disadvantaged – it is estimated that 50 percent of fires here are suspicious.

As American poet Maya Angelou famously said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, however, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Our memories of Black Saturday can and will help guide our response to an age of fire.

Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire was published by Penguin Australia in October 2018. You can find an audio, digital or print edition of the book in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Lessons for us all from the Black Saturday bushfires” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, Easter Special Edition, on March 30, 2021, Page 4. It was the first of a series of three articles featured under the headline “Curl up with a good book”, with this introduction: “The Easter long weekend is the perfect time to curl up with a good book, a cup of tea and a hot cross bun. Star Mail book reviewer Christine Yunn-Yu Sun has three suggested holiday reads — Chloe Hopper’s The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing: A Novel, and Minnie Darke’s The Lost Love Song.”

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