The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire attracted a lot of attention when it was published, which was unsurprising, given its topic.
Chloe Hooper’s book looks at Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in Gippsland. It starts by taking the reader to the investigation into the cause of the fire, in its immediate aftermath.
Hooper evokes a devastating landscape of ash and tears, where a community is reeling from the loss of life resulting from the fire.
It is the recount of that awful day that I was most moved by – although I had heard about the fires and seen the images of bush ablaze in the news, I had no real idea of the people involved.
I had to choke back tears when I read about a husband’s loss of his wife and a father’s heartbreaking last message from his son.
The story then moves on to the main deemed responsible for lighting one of the day’s fires. Hooper is even-handed in her analysis of the convicted arsonist, exploring the notion of him as a simpleton caught up in the community’s fury, or a malevolent presence bent on revenge for a life of bullying.
Hooper writes with compassion and clarity, and I loved the way she depicted a community, landscape and event.
She draws a haunting picture of the power plant overlooking a town where disadvantage is rife, and a sense of loss pervades everyday life.
Although this was a difficult novel to read, I found it to be very illuminating, and it certainly gave me food for thought about how I would see someone like this arsonist.
It also made me better understand a terrible event in my state’s history, and the lives so deeply impacted by it.