Non-fiction true crime book about the Black Saturday bushfires
Content warning: fatal bushfires, arson, disability, bullying, references to child pornography
The Black Saturday bushfires were a horrific collection of disasters with an enormous cost that still reverberates across Australia today. Although I wasn’t in Victoria at the time, the most destructive of the fires was right next to where I grew up and right next to the town where several members of my family live. After the fires, when lots of locals who had lost their homes were trying to rebuild, my family’s book charity opened its doors to help replace the books people had lost as well. I have to admit, I didn’t follow a huge amount of the news at the time, I think to be honest it was a little too close to home. However, when I heard about this book and that it covered the trial and conviction of a man found to be responsible for one of the fires, I thought that now, more than a decade later and after the 2019-2020 bushfires, I was ready to listen.
“The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Sibylla Budd is a non-fiction true crime book about the Black Saturday bushfires. The book opens with a harrowing account of the experiences of many Victorians in the fatal Churchill fire complex, including those who lost their loved ones and the detective who begins investigating the case. As the story unfolds, it appears that the fires may have been lit deliberately by someone, and one too many coincidences suggests one major suspect.
This is a thoughtful, considered book that carefully steps through the events of the bushfire with a strong focus on the stories of the people involved. I think the strongest parts of the book were the stories Hooper told about the people most directly affected by the fires. I don’t think I will ever forget the story of the man who lost his wife before his eyes, or the teenager who texted his father goodbye. I think Hooper did try to take a balanced approach to the book by providing a lot of background about the life of prime suspect Brendan Sokaluk and how he spent his days, and acknowledged the uncertainty around intent, capacity and guilt.
However, in some ways this book reminded of “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” and while I think Hooper was more sympathetic to Sokaluk’s background, disabilities and mental health issues than Helen Garner was, I similarly found her coverage of the investigation and trial a bit uncomfortable. One of the things that Hooper talked about at length was Sokaluk’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although she did focus on the ways that ASD may have impacted Sokaluk’s ability to understand police interviews, court proceedings and engage with his peers socially, I really felt like she speculated far too much about how his ASD diagnosis led him to set the fire due a particular theory that people with autism who set fires are “mesmerised” by the flames.
I listened to the audiobook so I wasn’t able to tell whether there was a bibliography or not, but Hooper was critical of a psychologist who was a court witness for not telling the court “that psychologists often [emphasis added] separate autistic fire-setters from others who deliberately light fires because some neuro-atypical people find the flames not just mesmerising, but soothing”. In somewhat of a contrasting view, a 2019 paper titled Firesetting and arson in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic PRISMA review noted that relatively little research has been conducted to date exploring firesetting or arson in individuals with ASD. While the paper did conclude that there may be some ASD symptomology that may contribute to arson, the paper did stress that there is no empirical support for an association between ASD and criminality, and that studies have found that people with developmental disabilities may be more likely to be victims of crime.
After listening to this book, I went back and checked the publication date (2018) because of my surprise at some of the language used. Several times Hooper refers to “Aborigines”. I note that IndigenousX states that this term “has largely disappeared in favour of Aboriginal people/s (except for a few older people who haven’t kept up with the times and a few racist commentators trying to make the point that *checks notes* they are cartoonishly racist)” and that the Australian Government Style Guide acknowledges this term can be offensive and discriminatory. Hooper also several times repeats the slur r*tard as it had been used against Sokaluk. These are words that editors and publishers should really be checking for prior to publication.
I know this review is getting a bit long, but I did want to make a quick mention of the narrator, whose familiar and rather comforting voice initially reminded me of SeaChange actor Kate Atkinson, but was familiar because she is the actor who played Gabby in the Aussie drama The Secret Life of Us. Budd has a very clear, empathetic way of speaking but occasionally I wondered if it was her tone or the text of the book that occasionally felt a little too simplistic.
An important book that provides a lot of insight into one of the multiple factors behind the Black Saturday bushfires and that eloquently and with empathy tells the stories of those whose lives were lost. However, a book that I felt went too far in some of its conclusions and that could have used more rigorous editing for respectful language by the editors.