Book review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Book review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

This is my first foray into Chloe Hooper’s writing but I think it’s safe to say I’m going to check out the backlog after this. The Arsonist is an exploration into the investigation of the 2009 Black Saturday fires – specifically the Churchill Fire.

I’m not usually a true crime reader and, if I’m being honest, I was sucked into the hype surrounding this book (plus the excellent cover – how can something so simple be so effective?). For once, though, I was glad to have bought something on a whim.

Reading about real events can be a little touch and go – either the author tries a little too hard to dramatise everything so that really, you’re reading fiction OR they stick so closely to the facts without adding any flair and, in a story like this one, that can get very dry, very quickly. Chloe Hooper finds the balance, thank goodness.

I was only 14 years old at the time of the Black Saturday fires – pair that with being a self-absorbed Sydney-sider and you can safely say that I was not all that diligent about following the news out of Victoria. Of course, I had heard of the fires and I must have watched some coverage at some point but aside from that I didn’t really know a whole lot about them. If absolutely nothing else, The Arsonist was a great way to learn a little more about a devastating part of our recent history.

Like most people, I was horrified to learn that someone had deliberately lit the Churchill Fire. I was born less than three months after the 1994 Sydney fires ripped through my suburb and, while I hope I’ll never learn what that experience was really like, I was raised (like many Australians) to take fire seriously – it isn’t a joke in this too dry, too hot country. So, like most people, I was coming to the story completely angry and confused as to how anyone could light a fire on one of the hottest days in Victoria’s history. But Chloe Hooper brings a story that shows us it’s never quite as cut and dry as we think.

While I’ll never be able to sympathise with the man who lit those fires (nor are we asked to), I was happy to have my way of thinking challenged, to see the way that the community failed him and to get a look behind why certain people might do the things they do.

Hooper pulls you in with a harrowing account of the devastation of the fires and while I found that the most powerful section of the book – being moved to tears and, to even feel quite sick at some points, quite rare for me in any story – the remainder of the story did well to lay out events and show us more than what the media offered up.  

I’m so glad I read this book this year and it’s a solid 4.5 stars from me overall!

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