Sally Rooney’s Normal People has had so many rave reviews and won so many prizes and accolades — the latest, The Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, was bestowed last week — that I’m not sure I can add anything new to the conversation.
But what I can do is give you my reaction to this stylish novel, which is essentially an on-off romance between two people from the same Irish country town over the course of four years (2011 to 2015).
For those of you that may not yet have read the book, here’s a brief overview. Marianne and Connell both attend the same secondary school on the west coast of Ireland, but Marianne is in a different socio-economic class to Connell because Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house.
The pair are different in other ways: Marianne is a loner and regarded by her classmates as a bit kooky and someone to avoid, while Connell is popular and good looking and leads a hectic social life.
But both are academically minded and good students, and this is what brings them to the attention of one another, a mutual respect for their brains and intellectual capabilities. Secretly, they become friends, then lovers, but no one knows about their relationship, which is kept hidden from fellow classmates — it’s really only Connell’s mother that twigs there’s something going on between the two of them.
The book charts the ups and downs of this unspecified relationship as the pair leave school, move from the village they’ve both grown up in and forge new lives in Dublin, where they attend Trinity, Marianne to study history and politics, Connell to study English.
Normal People is structured in an interesting way. It’s very much a narrative composed of set pieces framed around scenes — in bedrooms, in kitchens, at parties, in cars — that are essentially people talking but which give great insight into the individual character’s thoughts and behaviours and fears and hopes.
Indeed, this is a dialogue driven novel but there is not a single quotation mark in sight. It’s written it in such a way that it’s perfectly clear when people are speaking and who is doing it. (I heard Sally Rooney speak at her only London event earlier this month where she explained that using quotation marks would just add extra clutter on the page that wasn’t needed. )
Paradoxically, it’s often the things that people don’t say in this story that provides it’s edgier moments: when characters hold back from making confessions or being completely honest or not making the most of the opportunity to steer the conversation in ways that would make their lives easier but which might cause pain or embarrassment in the short term.
The narrative itself jumps forward in spurts, with each chapter heading indicating how much time has passed since the last chapter — for instance “Four Months Later (August 2011)” and “Three Months Later” (March 2014)” — giving a sense of movement and fast pace to what is essentially a deeply nuanced and measured story.
The UK paperback edition
But did I like it?
I have to admit that I thought the book dragged in places and I didn’t think there was enough tension between the characters. I wanted more action, perhaps more resolution, between Marianne and Connell. I kept waiting for something to happen, something big that would formalise their relationship or finish it. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this doesn’t happen.
But what I did like — and it took me awhile to come to this realisation — is the ways in which Marianne and Connell’s relationship is influenced by the exterior forces of class and money, by their own sense of self-worth (or lack thereof) and desire to be “normal”, and their inherent mutual attraction regardless of circumstance or upbringing. I also liked how Rooney occasionally shows how some issues, such as domestic violence, cut across the class divide. (It wasn’t until I heard Rooney speak at the event I attended that I discovered she calls herself a Marxist; with hindsight I can very much see that influence in her work, though I would not call this book political; it’s much more subtle than that.)
Normal People is essentially a universal story about individuals finding their place in a world that is complex, one that has obstacles in place which may hinder opportunities for success, whether because of class, gender or upbringing. And yet is also shows how social mobility is (occasionally) possible, how we can influence each other for the better and find ways to seek love and happiness against the odds. It ends on a hopeful note.
If you are interested, this is the aforementioned event I attended at the beginning of May, which has been recorded in full by the London Review of Books, which hosted the evening in the gorgeous surrounds of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London.
Sally Rooney talks to Kishani Widyaratna about 'Normal People' - YouTube
This is my 3rd book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 19th for #TBR40. I bought it late last year after a member of my book group raved about it. I treated myself to the Waterstones’ exclusive hardback edition.
Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.
A parental tug-of-war
The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.
One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.
Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.
From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.
Who to believe?
What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?
What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.
Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?
And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.
Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.
This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?
This cold, atmospheric setting is only matched by the chilling goings on in the school, which culminate in a shocking denouement.
But this is not a thriller, psychological or otherwise (as you might expect), but a carefully composed study of friendship, alliances, survival, betrayal and trust.
Boys ‘found by trouble’
When the book opens we meet 17-year-old Radford as he arrives at Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been “found by trouble”.
We do not know what trouble has found Radford, but we do know he has been driven from London to the Shropshire-based manor by his uncle, who makes the return journey as soon as Radford has alighted from the vehicle. (The pretense is that he doesn’t want to get trapped by the looming snowstorm, but the reader does wonder whether Radford might have done something so ugly and abhorrent that his uncle can’t wait to be rid of him.)
From thereon in, alone in the world, the suicidal Radford adjusts to a strange new territory, reigned over by the kindly and eccentric “headmaster” Teddy, who has troubles of his own.
The school has no real rules or structured timetable; the boys are free to attend lessons on an adhoc basis if they wish (Radford enjoys learning about “the art of electronics” presided over by a long-haired instructor called Manny), or they may prefer to help with repairs — “the manor was in a persistent state of decay” — or go for long walks in the countryside. The only female presence is Lillian, the cook.
As he settles in, Radford is drawn to West, another boy, who takes him under his wing and the pair form an alliance.
But despite the manor being a refuge from the world, where the boys’ backgrounds are left at the door and no one dares reveal what it is that sent them to Goodwin in the first place, petty rivalries and infighting bubble up.
It all comes to the fore when Teddy gets the grand idea to stage a show — featuring “humour, music, sword-fighting, flights of rhetoric and abandon” — for the local villagers, splitting the boys into groups and giving each a role to play in the performance.
A sense of disquiet
The overall mood of The Everlasting Sunday is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in that it is very much about a group of boys left to their own devices who end up turning on each other. It’s foreboding nature and sense of disquiet are palpable.
This is helped by the language that Lukins uses and the prose style he adopts; it feels like reading an old-fashioned novel, where beautiful descriptions are paramount and the sentences are often passive (there are a lot of things “coming”, for instance, such as “appeals came for dinner”; “six o’clock came”, “music came from the radio”) and objects are anthropomorphised (“the house was no pretender of authority”, “the dining room fire was in absurd spirits”).
It’s ripe in metaphor, too: a murmuration of starlings appears to represent Goodwin’s inhabitants, moving as one, by instinct, but just avoiding disaster by the merest of margins; and the aforementioned cold symbolises the emotional distance between them all.
This is an excellent novel, one that requires careful reading. It’s a story that appears gentle and delicate on the surface but hides a dark, brutal heart beating beneath. It’s subtle and complex and ever so quietly powerful.
This is my 17th book for #TBR40. The author very kindly sent it to me in early 2018 after I tweeted about wanting to buy it in Australia, where it was published (and where I was holidaying at the time), but of not having enough room in my luggage to buy another book. I don’t normally accept review copies directly from authors, but on this occasion I acquiesced because I was so desperate to read it at the time. I’m not sure why it’s taken me a year to extract it from the pile…
Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.
Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.
The starting point is:
‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…
1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…
2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…
3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…
4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…
5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…
6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.
So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.
Fiction – Kindle edition; Black Swan; 488 pages; 2019.
According to an old proverb, ambition is like setting a ladder to the sky — a pointless waste of energy. It can also lead to a long and painful fall.
John Boyne’s latest novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is very much focused on ambition and what happens when you forsake all else — your relationships, your family, your ethics — in the desire to succeed at all cost.
It’s a rip-roaring read, starring one of the most manipulative and self-obsessed characters you are ever likely to come across in contemporary fiction, and I loved the way it explores personal morality through the prism of a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists.
That writer is Maurice Swift, a charming, good-looking man, whose terribly immoral tale is told in three parts using three different points of view.
In part one we meet the famous German writer whose career Maurice destroys by penning a novel that reveals he’d unwittingly sent two Jews to their deaths during World War Two; in the second, we are introduced to Maurice’s wife, an English tutor and successful writer, whose manuscript he steals when she’s hospitalised and which he publishes under his own name to much critical and commercial acclaim; and finally, in part three, we hear directly from Maurice himself, now an elderly man down and out in London, at a time when his ego is being massaged by a literature student who befriends, then interviews, him for his dissertation.
The book also features two highly entertaining interludes — the first has Maurice visiting Gore Vidal in his Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest, on the Amalfi Coast, propositioning him and then being humiliated by him; and in the second, we’re thrust into Maurice’s new life, about a decade later, where he runs a successful literary magazine in Manhattan but steals the ideas in submissions for his own ends.
Success at all costs
As you can probably tell, Maurice isn’t a particularly nice man: he will stop at nothing to pursue his dream of becoming a famous writer. Self-absorbed, sociopathic and narcissistic, Maurice doesn’t let his inability to come up with creative ideas, nor his lack of writing skills, hold him back. He will use people, steal their intellectual copyright, purloin their personal stories and pass off others’ work as his own. He truly doesn’t care.
Part of the fun of reading this rather chunky novel — apart from the cracking pace, the snappy dialogue and the withering put downs — is wondering whether Maurice’s repellent behaviour is ever going to catch up with him. Will anyone realise what he’s up to and put an end to it — and his career?
The book also has some tongue-in-cheek digs at the publishing industry, including the obsession with literary prizes, creative writing courses, publicity “buzz” and bestseller lists. It’s like a hilarious insider’s take down of everything that’s truly rotten with the literary world.
But the best thing about A Ladder to the Sky is that it is a genuinely fun read, with a brilliantly redemptive ending. I galloped through it, marvelling at Boyne’s rich mastery of plot and storytelling, and his uncanny ability to turn the art of novel writing into something so dastardly and chilling. Hands down, this is my favourite read of the year so far, and I’m now eager to read more by this super-talented writer —recommendations welcome in the comment box below.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.
Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.
Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.
But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.
It wasn’t until I left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.
Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.
In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.
Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch
Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together
The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.
The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!
Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi
But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.
It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)
Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.
But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?
The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.
In the introduction to my copy of John Williams’ Stoner, Irish writer John McGahern says the one central idea of this novel is love: “The many forms love takes and all the forms that oppose it.”
But the message I took from it is to not be afraid to follow your passions, to stay true to yourself, to steer your own course and not fall under the influence of toxic people. This applies in all facets of life, whether love, work or play.
William Stoner, the protagonist in this novel, steers his own course when it concerns his career but lets others get the better of him in his personal life. It makes for a sometimes frustrating read, not least because you want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him NOT TO BE SO PASSIVE! Yet this is a wise and wonderful book about life and love on — and off — campus in the early part of the 20th century.
Vintage Classics edition, published 2012
A rediscovered classic
First published in 1965, Stoner was “rediscovered” in the early 2000s and became THE must-read book for bloggers circa 2005, which is when I acquired my copy. It has since gone through another mini revival, in 2012, when Vintage reissued it again. By my reckoning it’s about time for another comeback, as it were.
The story charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later.
It largely focuses on Stoner’s career, which starts off full of promise and vigour but as the years wear on becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor, Hollis Lomax, and contrasts this with his married home life, which also starts off promising but becomes toxic even before the honeymoon is over.
It’s written in a coolly detached manner but is rich in human insights and universal truths. There’s an intensity to everything that Stoner does, whether that be marriage or study or having an affair or hanging out with his beloved daughter. And always — always! — there’s a commitment to honesty.
A love of literature
When the book begins, Stoner is heading to the University of Missouri to study agriculture so that he can run the family farm when he graduates. However, in second year, that plan goes awry when he switches to literature, where a whole new world opens up to him. Later, his mentor, English instructor Archie Sloane, pulls him aside and suggests he stay on to do his Master of Arts:
“[…] after which you would probably be able to teach while you worked towards your doctorate. If that sort of thing would interest you at all?”
Stoner drew back. “What do you mean?” he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long, thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Which is exactly what happens. Previously a rather lonely, introverted person, as a tutor in the English Department he finds a kind of solace and develops friendships with other educated men who are his equals. Sadly, his best friend David Masters is killed on the battlefields of France during the Great War (Stoner refuses to sign up), a relationship he mourns long into the future.
And this, essentially, becomes the pattern of Stoner’s life: he finds something he loves, then it is either lost or becomes damaged or lessened in some way.
Case in point: his marriage to the beautiful and privileged Edith Bostwick, the daughter of a banker, who grew up in a big house with servants, turns sour very quickly. Edith, he discovers on the night of their wedding, is not interested in sex, and when they’re installed in a home of their own reveals herself to be a demanding and manipulative wife, encouraging him to buy property beyond his means, moving his study (without asking) into a poky glassed-in sun porch because she wants to use his room for her twin hobbies of painting and sculpture. Later, she uses their young daughter, Grace, as a way to hurt her husband even further.
Second case in point: his affair with Katherine Driscoll, a student in her late 20s, who asks him for feedback on her dissertation. The pair fall in love but the relationship comes to an abrupt end when its discovery is used against him as a form of blackmail by his rival in the English department. He never quite gets over this loss.
Anyway, you get the idea… Stoner’s personal life is pockmarked with these losses and tragedies, and these occasionally impinge on his career, which is, itself, plagued by political infighting and office dramas. Even when he nears retirement age, his desire to work beyond that has to be relinquished through events not of his own making.
Life of a lonely man
It’s easy to come away from Stoner thinking what a sad and tragic — and ultimately lonely — life he lead. Yet I never felt sorry for him; I simply wanted him to stand up for himself, to stop being so nice to his wife, to help his daughter when she needs it most, to push back against all the forces trying to keep him down.
Do we make rods for our own backs? In Stoner’s case, yes, that’s probably true.
But despite all that, Stoner is also an admirable person, not least the love he has for his daughter (although his inaction to help her out as an adult is questionable). Equally, his passion for literature and language, his dedication to his work and his desire to uphold academic standards against the face of interpersonal corruption is commendable.
As a whole, Stoner is psychologically compelling, tender, passionate and wise. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it.
This is my 16th book for #TBR40. For some reason I have two copies of this book — the Vintage Classics edition published in 2003 (purchased in the wake of “blogger buzz” circa 2005) and the reprinted edition from 2012. Mr Reading Matters also has a Kindle edition, which is the version I read.
Earlier this month I spent a weekend in Liverpool, staying with my friend Simon, from Savidge Reads, whom I once set up a real-life book group with in London many moons ago (well, July 2009, which is a decade ago).
We’ve remained in contact ever since Simon moved Up North but don’t often get to see each other, which is why I jumped at the chance to go visit when he invited me. We had a wonderful time exploring the waterfront, falling in and out of galleries, cafes and, of course, bookshops, and I even got a private tour of Liverpool Central Library, which is Simon’s place of work.
But the highlight was sitting on Simon’s famous sofa, in his gorgeous personal library (better than a bookshop!), and chatting about books for Simon’s book tube channel, the results of which you can see here:
Reading Horizons with Kim Forrester | April 2019 - YouTube
Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.
On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.
That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
The UK edition
A true crime story
The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.
It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.
One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.
Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.
He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:
Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.
As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)
And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)
This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.
Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.
The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.
The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.
The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.
Looking for a quick read, something that’s compelling and difficult to put down?
Here’s three — a literary novel, a psychological thriller and a true crime story — that I’ve read recently that may well fit the bill.
‘Cape May’ by Chip Cheek
Fiction – hardcover; W&N; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
This stylish and accomplished debut novel is a brilliant evocation of 1950s America (one of my favourite settings) and is highly reminiscent of Richard Yates in tone and theme with a smattering of F. Scott Fitzgerald thrown in for good measure.
It tells the story of a young couple, Henry and Effie, on honeymoon in Cape May, a seaside resort at the tip of southern New Jersey. It’s out of season and the couple appear to have the entire town and beach to themselves, but then they notice lights on in a house just down the street and find themselves drawn into the strange world of a trio of intriguing characters: Clara, a socialite; Max, her wealthy playboy lover; and Alma, Max’s aloof and pretty half-sister. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the newly married couple experience life lived on a whole new level — with numerous sailing trips, glamorous dinner parties and all-night drunken revelry — but this heady time comes at a cost, for seduction, betrayal and heartbreak await.
Compulsively readable, with great characters and snappy dialogue, Cape May begins as a sweet story of new love before it morphs into a seedy and sexually explicit tale of lust, desire and hedonism. It’s certainly not for the prudish, but as a fast-paced entertaining read — perfect for the beach or holiday — they don’t come much better than this. My only criticism, apart from the over-done sex scenes, is that the ending, charting the lives of Henry and Effie long after the honeymoon is over, feels slightly tacked on, but nonetheless this is a terrific page-turning read!
Tautly written psychological thrillers featuring morally dubious characters don’t come much better than the ones penned by London-based writer Sabine Durrant. This is the third Durrant I’ve read (you can see previous ones here) and it certainly won’t be the last.
In Under Your Skin breakfast TV presenter Gaby Mortimer finds the body of a murdered woman lying in bushes when she is out on one of her early morning runs across Clapham Common. She does the right thing and calls the police, but later she is arrested for the crime, setting into motion a whole chain of events, which results in Gaby being hounded by the press, losing her job and then being ostracised by all who know her.
Written in the first person, present tense, the narrative moves along at a cracking pace as Gaby, a happily married middle-class working mother, tries to defend her innocence alone while her hedge fund husband heads abroad unaware of his wife’s predicament. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and half the fun is guessing the world-be murderer — is it Gaby’s live-in nanny, her long-time stalker or one of the journalists she befriends to tell her side of the story? The denouement is suitably unexpected and shocking, making for a terrific end to a truly compelling read.
‘Day 9 at Wooreen: Kidnapped with nine Children — A True Account of the Crime that Shocked Australia’ by Rob Hunter
In 1977, not far from the small Australian town I grew up in, an entire primary school — one teacher and nine students — were kidnapped at gun point from Wooreen in South Gippsland. The kidnapper, Edwin John Eastwood, had escaped prison and carried out a similar kidnapping (of another remote one-teacher school) some five years earlier.
This audacious and shocking crime is told from the point of view of the teacher, Rob Hunter, who was nine days into his first job after finishing university. It’s a gripping and carefully written account of what would be a terrifying experience for anyone, let alone a “green” teacher with nine youngsters under his care.
Though the story is very much focused on the frightening minute-by-minute events of the two-day ordeal, Hunter weaves in his thoughts about what it is like to survive a traumatic event and how it shaped the rest of his life. He now travels to schools teaching students how to cope with their own hurts and traumas (you can read about that here).
For me, reading this book answered a lot of questions about exactly what happened and where —all the places mentioned here are totally familiar to me. And though I went to secondary school with several of the survivors, what happened to them was never something openly discussed. This book also made me realise what it must have been like for my own dad who was a teacher at a one-teacher school around the time of Eastwood’s first kidnapping: every sound of a strange car door slamming outside must have sent the safety radar into overdrive!
My copy of Day 9 at Wooreen is self-published, but I believe the book has been picked up by Wilkinson Publishing in Australia and is due for reprinting soon, but you may be able to pick up a copy via Amazon.
You can find out more about the Wooreen kidnappings via this short YouTube clip: