Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 3)

Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin

Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know, they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous. But they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”.

Nevo sums it up best when they say, about halfway through Finding Nevo: “There is no single trans narrative. This is my experience, and my experience alone.” But even bearing that in mind, for people unfamiliar with real-life trans and non-binary stories, this book is a bit of a crash course in a lot of the personal and political aspects of a life outside the cis-gender binary. Nevo introduces and describes subjects like changing pronouns, “passing”, seeking medical care, accessibility in public spaces, and there’s a really helpful glossary and resource guide in the back – but Finding Nevo never reads like a textbook, nor does it read like high-minded literature. Nevo uses language that is accessible to anyone. They don’t assume any pre-existing knowledge, just an open mind.

Nevo was born into a Jewish family, part of Melbourne’s very tight-knit Jewish community, which gives them unique insight into the intersection of culture, social mores, and religion in the LGBTIQ+ community. Nevo was assigned female at birth, and their mother desperately wanted a girl. So, for much of Nevo’s early years, femininity was enforced: dresses and skirts, pink toys, the whole she-bang. Nevo describes their childhood as being very lonely, and the more they tried to conform to others’ expectations, the less they felt they “fit in”.

Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, Nevo struggled to find which “version” of themselves felt most authentic. They are frank about the shifts and iterations they went through with their identity over time, and – crucially – the impact that their realisations and decisions had on their relationships (especially with their family members).





What Finding Nevo ultimately depicts and advocates is a process of “unlearning”: not just our ideas about the gender binary, but other restrictive expectations and assumptions, too. Nevo rejects the dominant narrative that all trans and non-binary people were “born in the wrong body”. However well-intentioned that explanation may seem (indeed, a lot of trans people use it themselves), Nevo resists the idea that their body is “wrong”. They also learned (the hard way!) that identities aren’t rigid, and it’s okay for them to change and evolve over time. It’s okay not to know and to go with what feels “right” at the moment. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Given that Finding Nevo is only about 200 pages long, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Nevo talks about many aspects of identity and transformation: the physical realities of life in a trans/non-binary body, negotiating the divide between their sexuality/gender and their religious faith, and all of the good, bad, and ugly emotions that have come with every step. Nevo describes great pain, joyful optimism, crippling anxiety, bewildering dysphoria, and – ultimately – determined hope. And they were only twenty years old at the time of writing! Incredible!

It’s a quick read, with straightforward language, and it’s appropriate for pretty much all ages (I’d say if a kid is old enough to ask questions about this book’s content, they’re old enough to read it and, maybe with a little help, understand). In fact, it won the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Of The Year Award in 2018. It’s a really useful resource and learning tool for queer folk and straight/cis-gendered readers. For people who are struggling with their own identity, Finding Nevo will hopefully be a source of comfort and reassurance. For others, it will be an opportunity to learn, to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes, and come closer to understanding a life that is different to their own.





For me, this was a really timely read – not just because it’s Pride, not just because reviewing Frankissstein last week had me confronting my own blind spots, but also because while there’s never a “bad” time to learn and to empathise, the current moment seems particularly good for it. Reading it re-enforced the importance of amplifying #ownvoices non-fiction, as well as fictional depictions of diverse characters. I really admire Nevo’s generosity in sharing their experience, so candidly, in a way that could help so many others. Finding Nevo is a heart-felt, thoughtful, and constructive memoir – do the world a favour and buy it for the TERF in your life today!


9 Must-Read Books By Indigenous Australians

For too long, the dominant perspective held that Australian literature “began” with the arrival of the colonisers, when white men started writing down (in English) what they observed about this continent. In truth, Australian literary history stretches back to time immemorial, with the oral storytelling traditions of First Nations people. Though, sadly, many of the languages of those nations have been lost to violent invasion, their traditions continue, and I am awe-struck by their resilience and power. Of course, over time, modes and approaches to telling stories have blended, and local publishers are focusing more and more on distributing and championing the written stories of Indigenous storytellers. Books by Indigenous Australians are no longer an anomaly, or a diversity token: they’re a fixture on our bookshelves and bookstores, and the reading community ever clambers for more.

9 Must-Read Books By Indigenous Australians - Text Overlaid on Image of Uluru - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve got to admit, though, I’ve felt more than one twinge of discomfort, as a white woman, trying to put this list together. I want to thrust forth into the spotlight some of the incredible books by Indigenous Australians that I’ve been lucky enough to encounter – but does that mean I’m taking up space that isn’t mine to hold? Am I part of the problem by putting a white-lady stamp-of-approval on stories that are part of a greater tradition than I could ever fathom? Where I landed is that I think it’s right that I use this platform to celebrate books by Indigenous Australians, but I’ve tried to ensure that the books I’ve selected are endorsed not only by me but also Indigenous readers and writers and reviewers whose opinions I deeply respect. I also present these books humbly, with the very loud and important caveat that this list is not even close to definitive or comprehensive, and I would strongly encourage you all to seek out any and all books by Indigenous Australians that challenge and entertain you.

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo - Kim Scott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Taboo is the fifth book by Indigenous Australian writer Kim Scott (who has previously twice won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Australian novels of high literary merit), a Noongar descendant. It’s an exploration of the memory of place, and the stain of violence. Set in present-day Western Australia, a group of Noongar people are invited to re-visit a taboo place, the site of a massacre. Lyrical and evocative, it shows the brutal power of destruction and intergenerational trauma, but also the strength and resilience of Indigenous people and their unique connection with this land.

Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss is a Wiradjuri woman, raised in the Sydney suburbs, who found herself in the middle of a proverbial shit-storm a little while back about Aboriginal identity. In Am I Black Enough For You?, she explores what it means to identify (or be identified) as an Indigenous Australian, and challenges unfounded but pervasive assumptions about what constitutes “an Aboriginal person”. Unfortunately, some segments of Australian media (who shall remain nameless, because they suck) have taken it upon themselves to put forth their own criteria, whereby someone might be “too light-skinned” or “too inner-city” or “not traditional enough” to be Aboriginal. Anita Heiss is not here to play, she rips those arguments to shreds – and I am HERE FOR IT!

The Yield by Tara June Winch

The Yield - Tara June Winch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As I mentioned above, one of the most significant and horrifying tragedies of the white invasion of this continent has been the irreparable damage and loss to Indigenous Australian languages. Far too many have been extinguished, and with them cultural knowledge and foundations that were millennia in the making. Tara June Winch explores the devastating effect of this loss through fiction in The Yield. A young woman, August Gondiwindi, returns to Australia after a decade overseas to mourn the passing of her grandfather. She discovers new plans for dispossession of his land at the hands of a mining corporation, and she is called to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and that of the long lineage from which she descends.


Archival Poetics by Natalie Harkin

Archival Poetics - Natalie Harkin - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can honestly say that I have never read anything like Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics. As a poet-activist, Harkin has been working with archives for many years, and this trilogy of poetry collections explores the ways in which violence against Indigenous Australians – especially Aboriginal women – has perhaps been excluded from the “official” narrative of the (white) archive, but recorded and recalled in different ways. It is visual, it is confronting, and it is a radical act of resistance against the colonial forces that would decide for themselves what is “worth” remembering.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was overjoyed to hear that Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2019. Not just because I love seeing books by Indigenous Australians get the recognition they deserve (Lucashenko has both European and Goori heritage), but also because it’s funny! Sure, the humour is dark, and steeped in the mechanisms that have emerged in Aboriginal communities to cope with ongoing trauma and oppression, but still! Funny! Such books are too often overlooked, I think, in favour of more visceral and heart-wrenching depictions of violence and trauma. Too Much Lip proves that while violence and trauma are still ever-present realities for Indigenous Australians, there is also incredible scope for humour and gleeful delight in their storytelling.

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Terra Nullius - Claire G Coleman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Terra Nullius” is a loaded term for all Australians, Indigenous or otherwise (for international Keeper Upperers, in brief, it was the term used to declare that Australia was “uninhabited” at the time of the white coloniser’s arrival, and as such justified their invasion of Australia as “settlement” of land not owned by anyone else, an obvious fabrication). So, it’s a powerful statement by Claire G Coleman to use Terra Nullius as the title for her incredible book. In this incredible debut novel, she projects the real-world systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians into a speculative alternative, forcing the reader to reconsider the Australia they think they know and the history they think they understand.


Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anthology)

Local publisher Black Inc has done an incredible series of anthologies examining what it’s like to grow up in Australia, calling on an incredibly diverse range of voices to tell stories that might not otherwise have a platform. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, was for me perhaps the most affecting and eye-opening. Contributors include both household names – like Adam Goodes and Miranda Tapsell – and emerging voices in the Australian literary landscape. All of the pieces seek to engage, educate, and enlighten, often challenging the stereotypes and preconceived ideas that other Australians might not even realise they hold.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu was first published back in 2014, and yet it’s still making headlines, and still topping best-seller lists. I think of all books by Indigenous Australians, this one in particular has become emblematic of the resistance against those media commentators (again, who I will not name, because they really suck) who would seek to maintain a status quo that perpetuates inequality and oppression. Those self-appointed cultural guardians perhaps shot themselves in the foot by decrying this book so vigorously and so often – in so doing, they brought it to a far wider audience than it might otherwise have reached (though undoubtedly deserves). Dark Emu completely rebuts many of the lies perpetuated about the pre-colonial history of Australia, and lays out a strong case for an overhaul of how we teach, talk about, and dismantle colonial myths. Pascoe has also subsequently produced Young Dark Emu, a version that allows parents and teachers to introduce young readers to these ideas from the very beginning.

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

It has been my honour and privilege to attend several events where I’ve heard Gomeroi poet, legal scholar, and life writer Alison Whittaker perform and speak. Basically, I’ll buy a ticket to anything that has her name on it. Blakwork is her incredible genre-bending collection of poetry, memoir, journalism and critique. In it, she examines different kinds of work (including what she calls “blakwork”, from which the collection derives its name), and the ways in which they intersect. It’s experimental, in the sense that it plays with format and perception, but accessible to all readers and curious minds. It has won and been short-listed for multiple awards, and in my view it is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Australian literature (not just books by Indigenous Australians).





One excellent way to support and celebrate our First Nations people is, of course, to buy books by Indigenous Australians – but if you want to do more, I highly recommend donating, fundraising, or making in-kind contributions to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Important note: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and stand with their communities in solidarity against the forces of oppression.

Tracker – Alexis Wright

How do you go about writing the autobiography of a man who was larger than life? The short answer is, you don’t. Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in 1954, in the latter years of the White Australia policy. He was one of the Stolen Generation, removed from his family at three years old, and raised on the Croker Island Mission. He went on to become the country’s most powerful advocate for the social, legal and economic advancement of Aboriginal Australians, working with the Central Land Council and other organisations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, until his death in 2015.

Alexis Wright has carefully pieced together his life story from the recollections and statements of over fifty contributors, each carefully selected and approved by Tracker before his death. The effect is something like sitting around the dinner table after a large family reunion, listening to everyone hash over their histories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The strongest speaker, though, is Tracker. He is instantly beguiling, his distinctive “voice” booming loud and large from the page.

That’s not an artifact, it would seem: it was how Tracker did business. He was charismatic, skilled in the art of tailoring his message for the listener, informal and crass at times but always disarming with his good-natured humour. He was multi-lingual, able to converse in several Indigenous languages as well as Australian English, and this fluidity of language allowed him to act as a conduit, and a mediator, between groups. Even where all parties shared a common language, Tracker still managed to form bridges across political and cultural divides; he was determined, in every circumstance possible, to create an environment where people felt they could talk to him, and to each other, as a way of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.





Tracker is a long(!) book, one that requires close and attentive reading over an extended period. Even though I was deeply engaged in the content and very interested in Tracker’s life and perspective, some parts dragged, which I guess would be the nature of any biography told in multiple voices (not all of them will resonate equally for every reader). It follows rough timeline, as you might expect of a biography, in that it starts with childhood and follows the trajectory of Tracker’s life and career. That said, it’s only very loosely structured. Sometimes, the same events are revisited and re-told from different perspectives, the pieces of the puzzle pushed together in a new way to form a different picture. This all seems to emerge organically from the mode of storytelling, rather than being forced or engineered as some kind of gimmick.

Wright doesn’t intervene as a narrator at any stage (she’s so absent from the narrative that where she is referred to at all, it is in third-person), which means there is no umpire adjudicating for the reader the contradictions between the different versions of events, and the different descriptions of Tracker. And it’s not all glowing, let me assure you: Tracker is, at times, criticised for his derision, his sexism, and (for want of a better word) his lack of polish. He was “certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility”, and so it’s hardly surprising he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Where the first half of Tracker focuses mainly on events and achievements in Tracker’s life, the second focuses more on his philosophy, his ideas, and his insights. It’s not dense sociopolitical commentary, mind you – just an airing of Tracker’s vision for economic, social, and legal self-determination for Indigenous Australians. For him, it wasn’t just about the legal ruling or the funding approval for an initiative, it was about the practical impacts for the community, what a given decision or action would actually do to combat the entrenched inequality that still exists in Australia. For all the unwieldy complexity of the issues and challenges he took on, he boiled almost everything down to financial independence: “If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work”. That might not be a popular view in today’s climate, reducing cultural continuation to dollars and cents, and it’s one I approached with much skepticism – but I’ve got to say, Tracker’s way of winning people over is just as effective on the page as it was in life.

Tracker also presents his views on the ever-timely issue of constitutional recognition:

“It is not our constitution, it is their constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sorts of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything.”

Page 407

This view surprised me a little – not the sentiment, but the vehemence of it – as did his views on the Greens and other environmentalist groups. Tracker pointed out a lot of problems in the ethos of these organisations that I’m privileged enough not to have had to consider previously. For me, Tracker really highlighted – in a way we don’t see often enough – the heterogeneity of “the Indigenous community”. Just like there are a broad range of views within “the gay community” or “the Muslim community”, the First Nations people are a diverse group with diverse views. That kind of nuance is too often lost when, as we’ve seen recently, they’re forced front and center of a political debate.





Another surprise: Tracker was a far less emotional read than I was expecting. Most of the contributors presented their stories in a matter-of-fact way, without the grief-stricken lyrical waxing I suppose I’m conditioned to expect from what is, in effect, a eulogy. This is not a book that sobs into the reader’s shoulder about how sad it is that such a brilliant man faced such hardship, and was lost so young (though it is, of course, extremely sad) – rather, it’s a careful record of the “facts” of a fragmented history, and in some ways, that is perhaps a more fitting tribute.

For her efforts and vision, Wright won the Stella Prize in 2018. It’s hard to imagine that a life as large and far-reaching as Tracker Tilmouth’s could have been captured in writing in any other way, and I’m glad that the literary community has recognised this stunning, epic achievement. I’ll leave the last word to her:

“Tracker was the one who made us look more, and work harder… The holes in this book are the missing stories of hundreds of people who knew Tracker. You can go anywhere in this country and there will always be someone with a great story to tell about Tracker, of something he said or did. Keep sharing those stories. Embellish them. Make his stories your own story. Most of all, be the story. That is what he would have wanted.”

Acknowledgements (Page 617-18)



Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills

Dystopian fiction has a new face: cli-fi, or climate change fiction, is forcing us to confront our new reality. These books bring together the scary science of what we’re facing with the art of literary writing. Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills is the best example I’ve discovered so far. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2019, a stunning achievement for a strange and unsettling but beautifully rendered book.

Dyschronia is set on the South Australian coast in the fictional town of Clapstone. The main character, Sam, is a young girl and a teenager for most of the book, but this is not Young Adult and it’s not a coming-of-age story – definitely one for the Adult Adults. Sam is being raised by a single mother, Ivy, and she is afflicted by a mysterious illness (“dyschronia”, from which the novel draws its name). What looks from the outside to be symptoms of a migraine actually brings with it visions of a dark future. Sam can see what’s coming, and it ain’t good.

So, already we’ve got a lot at play here: visions, familial bonds, the struggles of small-town life… but what makes Dyschronia truly extraordinary is the point of view from which all this is told. Mills uses the “collective first person”, a throw-back to the days of Greek chorus storytelling. The residents of Clapstone think and act and speak as one, an interdependent entity. “We had dreams for Clapstone,” they say, “why didn’t Sam tell us?”.

For those of you who haven’t lived in a small Australian town, it’s hard for me to describe just how damn clever this technique is. There is definitely a feeling, especially when the town is under threat or facing imminent natural disaster, that the community bonds cross over into something more. You start to think, and speak, in terms of the collective. So, while Dyschronia is a contemporary surrealist sci-fi book, it’s also very much based in social realism (it seems like there’s no way those elements could merge, but in this one, they do).





Sam’s visions aren’t straightforward either. Her experience of “dyschronia” isn’t like looking into a crystal ball. Instead, she ends up straddling the present, past, and future simultaneously, and trying to piece it together isn’t easy for her, especially seeing as the visions are accompanied by crippling pain. Her eerie foresight isolates her—I mean, who wants to hang around with the girl that has to lie in a dark room and see the future every time she gets a headache? There’s some suggestion that Sam’s illness, while officially considered to be “idiopathic”, could actually have been caused by environmental contamination.

But, as anyone who would use time travel to win the lottery can attest, there are upsides to having hints as to what’s coming. After a spate of suicides (that Sam kind-of saw coming), the local asphalt plant—basically the only economic driver of Clapstone—shuts down. The remaining residents struggle to stay afloat, and Ivy’s new boyfriend, the charismatic out-of-towner Ed, tries to find a way to use Sam’s visions to “save” them all (i.e., line his own pockets, because yes, he is a confidence man). He wants to turn Clapstone into a seaside resort, with a theme park and everything, and basically bullies Sam into having visions so that she can tell him how to make it happen.

Then, one morning, Clapstone wakes up to find that the sea has retreated, like an apocalyptic tsunami in reverse. Here’s another unbelievably clever twist from Mills: she inverts our expectations of “rising” sea levels, just to keep us on our toes. The change has left a desolate landscape of soggy sand and decomposing marine life. Hardly conducive to increasing local tourism! Ed does a runner, and leaves the town with a half-built theme park, a bunch of investors waiting on returns, no foreseeable prospect of profit, and now the government bureaucracy breathing down their necks.





The townsfolk finally recognise Sam as a “real” oracle, now that they have no other choice, and end up depending on her visions to bankroll their survival. Sam feels powerless, even in that exalted position: she feels like every decision the town makes, every subsequent turns of events, is inevitable. She comes to (rightly) question whether she actually has any control over what will come to pass. Whether Sam’s visions are predictive or self-fulfilling is the central question of Dyschronia, and Mills leaves it up to you. I mean, I lean towards the latter, but other readers might feel differently—there are no “right” answers with this one.

It should be clear by this point, but just in case it isn’t, Dyschronia has a super-jumpy timeline. Normally, that would drive me nuts, BUT this is one of the very few cases where I think it’s done superbly well. It’s clear that the back-and-forth serves a purpose, serves the story. Sure, there are moments of confusion and disorientation—for Sam, and for us—but try not to double back as you read. You haven’t missed anything, I promise. All the pieces will come together before the end.

I really appreciated the way that Mills looks at the effects of climate change on “ordinary” people (the kind some might call “the quiet Australians”, ahem). Who will protect them? Who can they rely on to come to the rescue? In Dyschronia, we see the government and corporations shift the townspeople back and forth like pawns. They end up lost in the never-ending chess tournament of bureaucracy. This is a particularly terrifying book in that it all feels very plausible, even with the time-travelling and whatnot.

Honestly, there’s so much going on with this one, it’s difficult to cram it all into a single review. Dyschronia is one of those books that you could read a dozen times, and still see something different on each go-round. You’ll come for the beautiful, lyrical writing, but you’ll stay for the complexity and intricacy of the world that Mills has built. It’s Australian speculative fiction, with echoes of Erin Brokovich and The Time Traveller’s Wife, told in a classic Greek chorus style, about a future that feels all too imminent.




The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

I know we live in an increasingly fast-paced world (the news tells me that every twenty seconds), but sometimes I still find myself wondering if a book is “too soon”. It’s been ten years since the Black Saturday fires here in Australia, but when I picked up Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist, I couldn’t help but shudder. At the start of this year, we saw the worst bushfire season on record with blazes incinerating half of the country, and it proved that the wounds are still very raw. I’m still not sure, even now, that Australia is ready for this story.

Black Saturday would be familiar to all Australian readers, but for the benefit of my international Keeper Upperers, here’s a recap: the Black Saturday bushfires burned across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday 7 June 2009, fueled by extreme weather conditions, mismanagement, and (as the title of this book would suggest) arson. It was among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters (and we’ve had plenty of them, so that’s saying something), resulting in Australia’s highest-ever bushfire-related loss of life – 180 recorded human fatalities – and an accommodation crisis for the countless communities ravaged by the flames, with over 3,500 homes destroyed. I wasn’t living in Victoria at the time of the fires, but I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage that went on for weeks, and I’ve lived there in the intervening years. Black Saturday is burned (for lack of a more appropriate idiom) into every Victorian’s memory. Hooper does give what (I hope) would be enough background information in the book itself for any reader, local or otherwise, to understand what happened that weekend.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned in Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

Page 37

The Arsonist focuses on two specific fires in the Latrobe Valley (though, as per the excerpt above, there were many more): how they started, the investigation, the trial, and the verdict. Hooper has described Latrobe Valley as “the forgotten fire”. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the larger fires at Kinglake and Marysville; later, the restrictions on news coverage of the trial meant that the public didn’t hear much about it until all was said and done. I guess this is Hooper’s way of correcting the record.

The blurb sets out her purpose: “What kind of person would deliberately set a firestorm? What kind of mind?”





I can only imagine that the first pages were the most difficult to write, the ones where Hooper describes the fire and the initial police investigation into its causes. The details are horrifying: “even when brand-new toilets were flushed, the water was black” (page 35). I was in tears before 40 pages had passed: this is not a book for the sensitive or squeamish. (Seriously, even if you’re thinking “oh, but I’m normally fine with true crime”, don’t assume that you’re prepared for the awful power of fire, and the way that Hooper unravels this story.) She balances these descriptions, though, with more general and historical information – not sugar to help the medicine go down, exactly, but room to breathe between the scenes.

Hooper acknowledges the Indigenous history of using fire as a cultivation tool in the bush, which was a pleasant surprise, and she touches on that history repeatedly throughout. She also describes the DSM definition of pyromania, provides contextual statistics about unemployment in the Valley, and so on. She provides an account of the police arson chemist, George Xydias (who also investigated the Bali Bombings), following the trail of clues that led the police to suspect arson, to the witness reports of a strange man wandering around carrying his dog. That man was Brendan Sokaluk, the man who would (eventually) be charged and tried for the crime.

The Arsonist is divided into sections, each giving a different perspective on what happened that day and in the months that followed: the detectives, the lawyers, and so forth. The opening section, about the fire itself and the initial police investigation, might seem a bit one-eyed at first, as though Hooper is simply saying “here’s a creepy guy who set fire to a beloved area and killed a bunch of people”. But if you keep reading, through to the section with the barrister’s perspective, Hooper starts to claw some of the balance back, bringing in a counterpoint: “here’s a maligned man with intellectual disabilities, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what’s happening, who watches Thomas The Tank Engine, who just wants to see his dog”. Sokaluk is far from a sympathetic character, but Hooper at least makes him multi-dimensional.





Hooper draws from court transcripts and other documents to provide the reader with as much detail and context as possible, in a mostly-linear timeline. She doesn’t offer conclusions or judgements; in fact, Hooper is barely present in the book at all. She writes from a detached third-person perspective (until the final chapter, her coda, where she describes the process of researching and writing the book, and her attempts to reach Sokaluk for an interview). It’s the same approach, the same “vibe”, as the Netflix series Making A Murderer (actually, if you liked that show, this is definitely the book for you!).

While The Arsonist is ostensibly about Sokaluk and his trial, it has broader significance. It’s about the struggles of regional and rural Australians, especially those living in coal mining towns. It’s about poverty. It’s about climate change. It’s about our understanding of mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders, and how they’re handled in our educational, medical, and judicial systems. And, of course, it’s about arson. Hooper taught me a lot about the nature of this type of crime – not just the person who commits it, but how it is investigated and prosecuted. Very few bushfire arsonists are ever “caught” – around 1% is the best estimate. Given that 37% of the many bushfires in this country are deemed “suspicious”, that number seems jaw-droppingly low.

While The Arsonist is meticulous and detailed, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. The subsequent Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is mentioned a couple of times, but not covered in depth. Hooper ends the book with Sokaluk’s imprisonment, and the reactions of his family and community to his conviction. Don’t come to The Arsonist expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether.

I recommend The Arsonist to true crime fans who worry that they’re completely numb after endless accounts of grisly serial murders. And, of course, I recommend it to all Australians who remember that day – but only if you think you can stomach it. (Seriously, trigger warning for fire and general horror!) Perhaps it’s too soon, perhaps not, but either way I’m grateful to Hooper for her attention and dedication in recounting this story and recording it for posterity.

If you want to know more about the Black Saturday fires and Brendan Sokaluk, I highly. recommend Brendan Sokaluk: Inside The Mind Of An Arsonist from the ABC, and The Burning Question, an episode of Australian Story.


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