Australia gets a lot of coverage overseas when it comes to our devastating bushfires. The collective bushfires of January 2020 were especially notable for their sense of apocalypse. But as horrific as the 2020 fires were, the summer of 2009 was even more deadly. February 7 was a particularly devastating day for my home state of Victoria; known as ‘Black Saturday,’ the extreme weather conditions helped fan the flames of over 400 individual fires, killing 173 people, and impacting many, many more. I had friends forced to evacuate, and both of my parents were told to prepare and put on watch. To put it bluntly, it was fucking horrifying to watch unfold in real-time.
While the hot and dry summer conditions were responsible for much of the devastation, some of these blazes were not accidents, but deliberately lit. One of these was at Churchill, about 160 kilometres southeast of Melbourne in the La Trobe Valley, which resulted in eleven deaths. Within the space of a week, detectives had found signs that the fire was not natural, reports of a strange man in the area just before things broke out, and an abandoned car. With this information, the police then swiftly arrested Brendan Sokaluk, a 39 year old local with a reputation as being ‘not all there.’
Sokaluk didn’t do much to deny that he wasn’t present at the time everything ignited and instead tried to blame the fire on a stray cigarette; an account that quickly disintegrated on further interrogation. More concerning than the garbled narrative, however, were reports of his anti-social nature and his past as a Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) trainee. (This is Victoria’s volunteer fire service.) With this information, Sokaluk’s involvement in the Churchill fire started looking less like an accident and more like the work of a typical firefighter arsonist.
In The Arsonist: Mind on Fire, Chloe Hooper sets out to explore the devastation the fires caused to the community; and the trial of Sokaluk, who was eventually convicted of the crime. She carries this out in three parts: The Detectives, The Lawyers, and The Courtroom. It’s a very linear narrative, and it carries very well. The unfurling of the events of Black Saturday are highly evocative, and I personally found them uncomfortable to read through. However, the arrest and the interrogation into the character of Brendan Sokaluk, while equally thorough, is rather more detached. This is ultimately a good thing, as there were two narratives about Sokaluk’s nature running concurrently throughout the trial—was he a cunning sociopath? Or was he more of a naïve misfit, whose behaviours were shaped, in part, by the people around him?
Unfortunately, the police mostly only saw one view of him: his lying and lack of remorse made him come across as sociopathic. But his lawyers, who noticed that he had undiagnosed autism and a possible intellectual disability, couldn’t assign the same cold-hearted deliberate motives to his actions that the police did. It’s very difficult to reconcile the two views, and Hooper does not come down with a strong opinion for either side.
While the courts saw fit to sentence him to 17 years, there’s no neat ending here with regards to exactly how culpable Sokaluk was for his actions—I’m not even sure the man knows himself. Nor can we really calculate the collective responsibility the rest of society carries for the events of Black Saturday.
The subject of The Arsonist is very uncomfortable at times so I wouldn’t say this book is always an enjoyable read. But it’s terrifically well put together, broad in scope for a book based on the trial of a single man, and full of empathy for those affected by the devastation. I recommend it, but I’d say make yourself comfortable before cracking it open.
For Bingo, some people are going to hate me for this, but The Wilds. Much of the book is about and set in the outdoors…