The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by award winning Australian author Chloe Hooper is a powerful piece of writing. It has been longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize

Because of its subject matter and the terror and revulsion that an arsonist can evoke, the book should have been difficult to read, but I read it quickly, drawn on by the skill and sensitivity of the writer.

About The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

The Arsonist tells one of the possible stories of the day known in Australia as ‘Black Saturday’. On that day, 7 February 2009, 400 bushfires ignited across the State of Victoria in catastrophic conditions, including extreme temperatures and high winds.

The fires continued to burn out of control for the next seven days across the State of Victoria, killing people, stock and wildlife, and destroying property.
Map showing locations of bushfires in Victoria in February 2009

From the enormity and the horror that was Black Saturday, Chloe Hooper singles out and writes about two fires in the south-east of the State, and their aftermath. An arsonist started them deliberately in the Latrobe Valley, marked on the map above as the Churchill Complex. The two fires killed 11 people.

In 2012, Brendan Solaluk, who lives with autism, was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment for the pointless crimes of arson.

Bushfires form part of the background of the lives of all Australians. Everyone has a story to tell about a fire which has touched them in some way. The author brings to her writing many distinctive qualities which should make this book an Australian classic about a subject so deeply engrained in our minds.

Chloe Hooper’s superb research skills inform every page of the complex story.

She recounts the investigation into the Latrobe fires by the detectives assigned to the task. We learn about the events of the afternoon when the fires began, and about the ensuing work of the detectives and their personal lives.

Next, the story follows the prosecution and defence lawyers as they prepare to take this case of arson to court. In the courtroom we see the legal system in action. I couldn’t help but wonder as I read how much Brendan Solaluk understood of the proceedings as he yawned his way through the days as witness after witness told his or her view of what happened.

In the Coda, the author reflects on her own journey of many years, during which she wrote this book.

What I liked most about this book

Apart from her brilliant story-telling, three other main attributes of Chloe Hooper’s writing set this book apart.

First is the author’s analytical mind which probes the background and the events of the fires of Black Saturday. Chloe Hooper manages to take the reader into the depths of the tragedy and, also, into the deepest recesses of human psyches.

Next, the lyrical writing enchants, even as Hooper writes about a subject as sordid as arson, or as truly dreadful as destructive bushfires. Every page rings with poetic expression:

The arsonist had no need to set kindling amongst the blue gums. Each tree had made its own pyre…Flames release gases that act like propellant, sending fireballs rolling across treetops. The shedding ribbon bark unfurls streamers of fire that travel kilometres on the wind.

And finally, the narrator’s compassionate heart seeks to understand, and to encourage the reader to understand, the nuances and contradictions of the motives and urges of the all of characters about whom she writes.

For example, writing about Brendan in the Coda, the author says:

I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by flame. There is only the person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged or bored or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

I highly recommend The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire.

Some statistics about Black Saturday

  • The fires spread over farmland, forest reserves, national parks and urban and rural fringe areas.
  • They burned over 450 000 hectares (well over a million acres).
  • One hundred and seventy three people, unable to escape, died during the fires. The number of fatalities was later revised up to 180 to include those who later succumbed to their injuries.
  • Four hundred and fourteen people suffered injuries.
  • Over 3 500 buildings, including 2 029 houses burned to the ground, shattering lives as people became homeless.
  • Farms and livelihoods were decimated.
  • Livestock and wild animals and birds were incinerated.

The  Arsonist A Mind on Fire
By Chloe Hooper

Trade Paperback
15 October 2018
Hamish Hamilton
272 pages
RRP $34.99

The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing and an organisation that champions cultural change.

This is my first review for this year after a slow start to my reading for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It fits neatly into one of the categories of books I will read and which I wrote about in a blog, Nineteen books in 2019. The category ‘One from the Stella Prize list 2019.

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