‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

hooper_arsonist

2018, 245 p.

This book was awarded the Judges Special Prize in the 2019 Community History Awards announced during History Week last year, which surprised me a little.  Not because it’s not a worthy recipient – it is – but I hadn’t thought of it as ‘history’ as such, although of course, one day it will be.  After all, journalism has been described as “the first rough draft of history”.

However I see this book more as journalism than history.  It explores the police case and resultant trial of Brendan Sokaluk, the man found guilty of intentionally lighting the Churchill fires on Black Saturday 2009.  I happened to read it in January 2020 during our summer of smoke (we haven’t yet coined a name for it, perhaps because we fear that the worst is yet to come).  The Murdoch media was (incorrectly) proclaiming arson as the major cause of the fires that have ravaged our east coast this season. However,on Black Saturday in 2009 – which I wrote about at the time here and here– there was a case of arson and it is explored in this book.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I ‘The Detectives’ follows the arson-squad detectives,  dispatched to Churchill while the appalling toll of 173 deaths from the Black Saturday fires was still mounting.  Here we very much see the fire’s immediate impact on both the environment, and on the people who faced it. The detectives inspect the site, they question Churchill residents, and the name ‘Brendan Sokaluk’ keeps arising. When they interview him, they suspect that they are being played, and that he is feigning incomprehension.

Part II ‘The Lawyers’, focuses mainly on the defence lawyer, Selena McCrikard, whom Hooper thanks in her acknowledgments for “her trust”.  Other workers at Victoria Legal Aid, are also thanked “for their time and candour”. Selena McCrikard, like the police, was not sure about Sokaluk’s intellectual capacity, and as part of her defence she uncovers a delayed diagnosis of autism, and a long and sad history of isolation, bullying and disadvantage. Brendan lives in his own squalid house, but his parents have tried to help him to be independent. He had worked in the gardening section at the local university, but his workmates distrusted and disliked him. It’s a pretty threadbare life.

Any sympathy evoked in Part II is put to the test in Part III ‘The Courtroom’, three years after the fires. Parallels spring to mind with Helen Garner, who has written several books based on court cases, but Hooper keeps her distance here, instead of writing herself into the story as Garner often does.  It is interesting to see fire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst, who has appeared on our televisions and in our newspapers over the last few months, being hung out to dry in the court. The case lasted 23 days, and the jury deliberated for three days.

The book closes with a coda, when Hooper returns  to Churchill.  This is the second time she has been there, having visited it just a few days after Sokaluk was arrested. Returning to it after 2017 she found that the Hazelwood power station, the main employer in this economically depressed area, had been decommissioned after a series of suspicious fires had burnt the coalmine in 2014.  She closes her book with a reflection on fire and climate change. Arson cannot be stopped entirely, and “warmer summers in a changing climate will provide more opportunities for those drawn to lighting fires” (p. 240). The pylons that stretch from the LaTrobe Valley across Victoria, she notes, feed an electricity grid that was responsible for more deaths on Black Saturday than Brendan Sokaluk’s fire.

This is an elegantly written book, conveyed without the mental anguish and ethical turmoil that marks the work of Helen Garner, another non-fiction writer drawn to writing about crime and courthouses. Hooper does not try to pathologize Sokaluk: she leaves that to the courtroom experts.  Neither does she minimize the effect of Sokaluk’s actions on the people of Churchill. Instead, she leaves us with Shirley, who lost both her sons in the fire.  As in her earlier book, The Tall Man, Hooper peels back the layers of contemporary Australian society, and reminds us  – as if we have needed reminding this summer- that fire will continue (and even more) shape our view of ourselves as Australians.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2020

Movie: Parasite

This won so many Academy Awards that we had to go to see it. I can certainly see that the film would be a film-afficionado’s delight, with beautifully composed shots and lots of visual imagery.  I’ve only just realized that it was directed by Bong Joon Ho, who directed Snowpiercer (which I saw, but omitted to comment on here in this blog, it seems.) It has similar themes about class and subversion.  While watching it, you are very much aware of its careful staging and lighting.

I’m pleased that a film other than one made in America or Britain was so well-received, and it probably reflects my Eurocentrism that I couldn’t tell you the name of any of the characters in the film other than ‘the poor family’ or ‘the rich husband’. And what an unlovely group of people they were, as a poor family ingratiates and plots its way into a rich family’s house. In the midst of architectural beauty and grinding poverty, everyone is either scrabbling to get ahead, or else completely oblivious to their privilege.

There is heaps of stuff on the internet explaining the story, or explaining why it is so important . I wonder if that says something about the film for a Western, non-cinemaphile audience?

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 (which probably shows that I am no film critic)

Viewed at: Cinema Nova, Cinema 3 (one of the big ones)

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-29 February 2020

History Listen.  From 19 November 2019, Port Essington, World’s End is about the  garrison established by the British Government in Arnhem Land in 1838, the same time that Port Phillip was being ‘opened up’. This was the third attempt to establish a settlement in the Northern Territory, both to warn off other European powers and to act as ‘Australia’s Singapore’ as a trading port with Asia. Because it was only ever a military garrison, there was no land grab and relations with the indigenous people remained good.

Poncho_Front

It’s not me!! It’s from Wikimedia

Nothing on TV  Did you have a poncho during the 1970s too? Mine was lime green, white and orange acrylic. In Have You Seen My Poncho Cloak? our trusty guide Robyn Annear takes us back to the 1855, when poncho cloaks were all the rage. Who would have thunk. Her attention was attracted by a rash of advertisements after the Exhibition Ball when a stuff-up . This episode foreshadows some of the information in her recent Nothing New (my review here)

 

 

 

New Books Network At 75 minutes, this podcast is FAR too long. Hiding in Plain Sight is a new book by Erika Denise Edwards, herself an Afro-American, who was struck by the seeming invisibilty of people of African heritage who were descendants of African slaves in Argentina. Using the small town of Cordoba in Argentina as her case study, she traces  the way that African women used their positions as wives, mothers, daughters and concubines to ensure that they were officially registered as ‘white’.

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Nunez_thefriend

2018, 224 p.

A bit of a spoiler ahead.

This is only a small book, and it feels as if you are reading a memoir or a diary, rather than a novel.  It is addressed to an unnamed, dead friend in the second person “you” throughout, and it is a series of short paragraphs, separated by time and asterisks. The unnamed narrator is a female writer, teaching creative writing at a university as many writers tend to do. Her friend, to whom the book is addressed, was her mentor, a fellow teacher and also a writer and he had committed suicide.

Her friend is/was an egotistical, priapic curmudgeon really, but she loved him- not sexually, but as a friend. He was onto Wife Number Three (all the wives are designated this way), and when Wife Number Three refuses to continue caring for the writer’s huge Great Dane, called Apollo, the narrator reluctantly takes over his care.  It’s a big ask- she’s living in a small, rent-controlled flat in Manhattan, where animals are forbidden. On one level the book is about her deepening love for the dog, which is almost a form of displacement for her love for her friend. But it’s also about death, suicide, and most of all about writing.  Writing as an individual practice; writing as a social practice; writing as an industry.  The book flutters with allusions to other authors, most particularly My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley (which I had never heard of) and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which I have read, and which shares a stubborn, unlovely old man. It is very much a reader’s and writer’s book, filtering the world through the words of other people, and using other people’s narratives as a way of making sense of things.

Near the end, there is a curious hiccough, that makes you wonder whether you read it correctly.  It is barely mentioned in the reviews that I have read of the book, which also seems strange.

It’s only a short book, and it quivers with emotion, making it an uncomfortable and yet compelling read.  I finished it wondering “what on earth WAS that book?”

My rating:  8/10

Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Movie: H is for Happiness

Yes, it’s another of my ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ postings about a movie I have seen just before it finishes its run at the cinemas. I knew nothing about this movie, except that it was Australian. With a cast of Miriam  Margolyes, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth and Deborah Mailman, I thought that it must be doing something right. Set in Albany W.A. it’s the story of a 12 year old girl trying to heal the grief and anger in her family. She befriends her young classmate who is dealing with his own trouble through believing that he is living in another dimension, and endangering himself trying to return to another dimension.  It walks the narrow line between saccharine tweeness and an affecting, brilliantly acted depiction of family grief. Both child actors were excellent, and I’m sure young Wesley Patten will be the new Aaron Pederson in the next 10 years.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

 

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin

Curtin_OConnor

2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

Movie: Cancion sin nombre (Song without a name)

This 2019 Peruvian film is set in the late 1980s, although the events it depicts occurred in 1981, when a Colombian/Peruvian child kidnapping scheme was uncovered, whereby children were bought or taken from impoverished women and sold to childless couples in the United States or Europe.  Appallingly, a similar trafficking ring was discovered in 2018,with links going right up to the top of the police ranks.

The film, shot in black and white, follows a 20 year old indigenous woman, Georgina, who sells potatoes in the market with her husband, and lives in a small shanty in a coastal town. Without the money to pay for antenatal care, she notes the address in the city of a clinic that offers free care. When she has her baby, it is whisked away for medical attention and she never sees it again.  This is the story of her search for her baby, and for justice.

The film has an other-worldly feel, as if it is a fable even though it is told in an urban setting. There is little contextualizing information, especially about the political situation and the rise of terrorism, and there is little conversation. Georgina and her husband are rendered completely impotent through their poverty and lack of documentation, and they have no way of negotiating a corrupt system until Georgina catches the attention of a journalist.

There is a rather unnecessary sub-plot about the journalist as well. The director Melina León was the daughter of the journalist who uncovered the original plot (although in different circumstances), so perhaps she wanted the give the journalist a more complex backstory. It felt rather gratuitous, and Georgina’s story was far more important.

It is a very sad and rather depressing movie, particularly the last scene.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Viewed at: Thornbury Picture House as part of the Filmoteca South American and Spanish film program.