There are days that have been etched into the collective memory; dates that have become part of the texture of the national culture. February 7, 2009 is one of them, the day known as Black Saturday, the day that 173 people died in fires that swept Victoria.
One of those fires was outside Churchill, a small town in the Latrobe Valley. It killed 11 people and was swiftly established to have been deliberately lit.
Author Chloe Hooper.Credit:Justin McManus
One of the first tasks for investigators in such a situation is to find out where a blaze started. They can – miraculously to the layperson – establish some sort of logical pattern in the ash that will lead them to that crucial spot. It is known as the area of confidence; paradoxically, it is also known as the area of confusion.
That paradox could be said to lie at the heart of Chloe Hooper's new book, The Arsonist. It is on the one hand an account of the investigation into the Churchill fires and the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of the perpetrator, Brendan Sokaluk. It is also an investigation into why someone such as Sokaluk, a simple man diagnosed in his forties as being on the autism spectrum who had been bullied, misunderstood and an outsider all his life, would do such a thing. So the book is about the confidence and confusion of culpability and motive.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper.
Hooper does not doubt that Brendan Sokaluk, who was sentenced to 17 years and three months in jail, deliberately lit the fire, even though he never admitted it. (His eventual version involved a cigarette and a paper napkin tossed from his sky-blue Holden). To do so, she says, would be disrespectful to those who died.
Nor did she want to paint an entirely unsympathetic picture of Sokaluk. Hooper says he is not an uncommon character in the law nor in a small town. So the questions she asks is whether he was a fiend or a simpleton, or both. And implicitly whether the court system is the right way to deal with someone like him.
"There were moments when I think his legal team didn't feel very confident that he knew what was going on. Even to the point that they were uncertain after the jury returned their verdict that he understood that he had been found guilty and was going to be going to jail for a long time."
Sokaluk's favourite way to pass the time was to watch children's cartoons – Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder his picks. And, yes, Hooper did ask his lawyers whether he used to watch Fireman Sam.
"That was the sometime uncomfortable irony, while I was writing this my two sons had a sort of full-blown fire-fighter obsession. You couldn't move around the house and not trip over a fire truck; you'd be driving in the car and there'd be these nee-na-nee-na sounds coming from the back."
And if you can't look at Sokaluk with a degree of humanity, she says, you have missed an opportunity to understand something deeper about why this fire occurred.
Hooper went to the Latrobe Valley soon after that terrible day. To her it seemed incomprehensible that someone could have lit the fires and she was intrigued by who becomes an arsonist and why. "I found it sort of horrifying and intriguing."
The Tall Man, her nuanced account of the death of Indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island and the subsequent trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, had been published the previous year and was in the process of garnering accolades and awards across the country. And by then she had turned her focus onto her second novel, The Engagement.
So she went to Churchill with a journalist's curiosity – Hooper won a Walkley Award for her initial reports into Doomadgee's death in The Monthly – but wasn't convinced she would write about the fires. When she did, it was after the whole business had been through the courts.
In The Tall Man she identifies the moment that she was hooked on the story as a dinner with Domadgee's family, at which they ate goat meat that he had hunted. In The Arsonist she identifies no such occasion, but in hindsight talks about going with the arson-squad detectives to the eucalypt plantation where Sokaluk lit two fires.
"I do think it's extraordinary that 30,000 hectares can go up in flames and that these detectives and arson chemists can trace a fire back to three square metres. Seeing that and being there with them was a powerful moment."
It took a long time for Hooper to get permission from Victoria Police for the detectives and chemists to speak to her officially.
Finding an entry point to a story was rather like trying to enter a foreign country. She tried from different angles, and it was as a last resort that she rang detective senior constable Paul Bertoncello, who handled more than 600 witness statements during the investigation, to sound him out on the idea of cooperating.
"He was quite receptive, but didn't speak to me until he had official permission. But at the end of that (initial) conversation I had to say to him I've got to tell you my last book was about police corruption, and he said, well, that's not a problem for me."
Legal Aid sought permission from Brendan Sokaluk and his family for his lawyers to speak to Hooper. And they sent an independent lawyer to see him in prison to ensure things were done correctly; that he understood. Without their input and thereby Sokaluk's point of view, Hooper was concerned she would simply be writing a police procedural. "It seemed ironic also after having written about police corruption, that was not a book I wanted to write."
Hooper's initial question – why does someone commit arson – brought her into areas she didn't expect and issues she didn't bank on.
"Crime stories in Australia are often actually about disadvantage and dysfunction and the Latrobe Valley is a place where both exist alongside the coalfields in quite stark ways," she says. "I have found it difficult. I have become close to a woman who lost two children in the fire and I think that balancing her loss and the losses of really hundreds of people due to this act and also holding onto his story and trying to look at that even with some sympathy has been complicated."
The first time I sat down to talk with Hooper about her work was when her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, was published n 2002. It was something of a sensation as while studying at Columbia University in New York she had been signed up by the literary agent to the big names, Andrew Wylie, and he had flown into Sydney to conduct a weekend auction for the publishing rights.
During the course of our chat about The Arsonist I referred to a comment she made back then about the care the writer of true crime has to take between showing moral outrage at whatever violent act has occurred without actually investigating why the writer is herself fascinated.
Today she says that the genre is problematic because of the fine balance required between prurience and sociology. Yet those stories can tell something deeper about the place we live in.
"People are interested in human affairs, and human affairs involve general bastardry," she says. "There's very little in non-fiction or fiction that doesn't involve some crime. Is it more prurient to imagine a horror that occurred or to write about one that in fact occurred? Another area of confusion."
However, she isn't convinced The Arsonist does fit into the true-crime category because there isn't the generic pleasure of a crime being solved, the social body being restored to order.
"I don't know how many answers that I provide in this book, but it touches on issues connected to intellectual disability and the law. But also, we are living now in the pyrocene, this age of fire, and these fires aren't going to stop. We have a government with no climate policy and a PM who brings coal into parliament; this is a look at coal country from another perspective," Hooper says.
And she points out that of the 173 people who died on that day, 161 of them died as a result of failings of the electrical infrastructure.
"It is worth bearing in mind when there's such fear and loathing towards a man with an intellectual disability who lights a fire that the majority of the people died due to the poor checks and balances by power companies trying to make a profit."
The Arsonist is published by Hamish Hamilton at $34.99.
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