On the scorching February day in 2009, a man lit two fires in the Australian state of Victoria, then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. What came to be known as the Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people and injured hundreds more, making them among the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in Australian history. As communities reeling from unspeakable loss demanded answers, detectives scrambled to piece together what really happened. They soon began to suspect the fires had been deliberately set by an arsonist. The Arsonist takes readers on the hunt for this man, and inside the puzzle of his mind.
To describe a bushfire is to describe a monster. We speak of flanks, fingers, tails and tongues, Chloe Hooper observes in The Arsonist, of a predatory, devouring hunger ... The latest book by the Australian writer tells the story of just one of the Black Saturday bushfires, a blaze deliberately lit on the outskirts of Churchill in the Latrobe Valley — coal country ... With propulsive energy, The Arsonist follows the case against Sokaluk, a 39-year-old former volunteer firefighter, from the arson investigation’s first frantic hours to the courtroom verdict. But first, Hooper takes us into the belly of the beast: birds falling from the sky with their wings burning; beehives combusting from the radiant heat; farewell texts escaping from fire-ravaged homes ... The elemental terror of Black Saturday requires little embellishment, only the quiet dignity of witness. It’s this restraint — as intelligent as it is compassionate — that elevates The Arsonist from slick true-crime procedural to cultural time capsule.
In The Arsonist, Hooper reignites the memories of those cataclysmic events with relentless, devastating effect. Her focus is on one fire, deliberately lit, an 82,000-acre flare-up on the outskirts of Churchill in Central Gippsland ... The message in The Arsonist is muted, its lessons diffuse ... The Arsonist may not provide answers, but it asks disquieting questions. Bearing witness, it reminds us of the victims and the terror, the senselessness of a flame tossed onto a forest floor, and the awful silence of a landscape razed by fire.
Images of the bushfire as a creature that ‘licks’ the land open The Arsonist, and tempt the reader to position the fire as the book’s central character. If this were the case, however, there’d be no need to read more than seventy pages. Were we to accept a fire-as-protagonist thesis, the greatest point of tension would occur in the first act, causing the rest of the book to slump. But the central character of The Arsonist is Brendan Sokaluk, a shadowy shapeshifter, and the book an inquiry into why he set his hometown ablaze ... If not handled carefully, reconstruction narratives can turn stories into unsolvable puzzles. This is because they derive their narrative coherence from atomised sources that often conflict with each other. While Hooper does allow her multiple characters many digressions, The Arsonist achieves its clarity through strict linear chronology.