I worked in Victoria’s emergency services for five years, starting about three years after the Black Saturday Bushfires. Even though I wasn’t around for that day (I wasn’t even living in Victoria then), it coloured everything I did. The warning system I managed had been built in answer to the Royal Commission’s findings, for example. I feel like Black Saturday came up almost every day, as a reference point, or a lesson, or a warning of how bad things can get.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper follows a man who deliberately lit two fires in the La Trobe Valley on Black Saturday — a man we ultimately learn climbed on his roof to watch them burn and sweep across the land, and the homes and people that lived there.
I read this while the bushfires raged over the summer and smoke hung over the city like a spectre of dread. The book starts by painting a vivid portrait of what it was like to fall victim to the Black Saturday bushfire. People who woke up in hospital after trying to defend their homes from the spontaneous ignition of trees, people who tried to flee but couldn’t and people that never woke up at all. Don’t read this book during a bad bushfire season.
Much of the book rollicks along as a page-flipping thriller, following detectives as they hunt for an arsonist in a high-crime-area haystack. As they do, their investigations uncover the way fire shapes Australian society, and the small towns within it. It’s beautiful, propulsive writing that you feel in your guts.
But here’s the thing. They catch the guy, and the story just continues. We sit with this man, and the people around him, until any sense of pious victory gets burnt away. He’s not a villain, he’s just a man. There’s no big speech about why he did it. You feel bad for him. Black Saturday may have been many things, but it wasn’t a day where anyone won.
This book reinforces that lesson — one I learnt in journalism well before I was sending warnings to people — that the story is never easy. We humans are at the mercy of forces well beyond our control. Even the arsonist can’t control what burns or explain why they did it in the first place.
As I write this I’m working from home as part of a global effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, a crisis that seemingly came the instant the final embers on the summer bushfires went out, as if we’re now living in a TV show where every season demands a more bombastic plot twist.
No-one knows what’s going to happen next, or even what the world will look like when this virus is defeated. We just need to work together as best we can. I’m glad I read this book beforehand, to remind me that ambiguity is not a cause for anxiety, it’s just the way things are.