July 20, 2010


The Death of Doomadgee
by Chloe Hooper
278 pages, Penguin

Review by SF Winser

A little while ago, I picked up a copy of one of those books I promise myself I will read one day – Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. I still haven't read it. I will. I enjoyed 'Apocalypse Now' too much to avoid reading the source material.

In the meantime, though, I ended up with a copy of 'Tall Man'. This is the book everyone in the literary scene is apparently talking about. Or so I'm told. Normally this would make me shrug and mutter a dismissive expletive while I pick up a thoughtful YA novel or intelligent Comic-Fantasy instead. I don't know why I ended up with it. I'm glad the gods of text worked fate that way. Books don't come more thoughtful or intelligent than this.

I'm going to have to put off reading Conrad's work now. There's too much similarity between it and 'Tall Man' that I fear messing up future memories of the two. 'Tall Man' is the material of 'Heart of Darkness'... its dark heart, to spin a terrible flat phrase. The themes of power, race, morality and isolation feed this work. Writ large.

Writ true.

'Tall Man' covers the true story of an investigation into the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody. The real riots that followed in the isolated, already damaged Palm Island community. The impact of the death and following disorder on the people involved.

Mostly it's an attempt to somehow pin down Truth-with-a-capital-T, to discover the heart of the man accused of causing the victim's injuries – Policeman Chris Hurley – and somehow find facts through lies and bad evidence and conflicting characters. Hooper struggles throughout the novel to trace some semblance of reality into text. It is a hard, heroic struggle. She keeps an admirable objectivity while at the same time becoming involved with the victim's family, their lawyer and the broader Aboriginal community of Palm Island, most of whom think Hurley is as guilty as could be.

But Hurley is a complex character, not so easily seen in black-and-white. So are the Aboriginal community. Hooper is a master of bringing a novelistic tone to real events without reducing real people to goodies and baddies or caricatures of themselves. We feel all the players as real people, doing their best to get by in hard circumstances. Hooper describes those circumstances without pulling punches or laying blame.

She describes what I – a white Aussie who grew up knowing maybe one Aboriginal kid – felt to be an almost alien landscape. One that happens to exist in my own country. She describes a rough, nasty history that was only hinted at in school. She made me confront the consequences of events I was aware of (such as 'The Stolen Generation') in ways I had never been made to before. Hooper illuminates a part of the reality of my own beloved homeland that I had never before thought about except in an almost knee-jerk sympathetic way. In fact, I have a funny feeling that one of my ancestors was involved in the life-destroying children's missions that were in part responsible for the ruin of Aboriginal families and societies. I suspect part of me didn't WANT to think too hard about this.

But now my eyes are opened. Hooper writes with beauty, insight and compassion for everyone involved in the story. It is impossible to walk away from this book unaware of the sociological issues plaguing huge swathes of humankind in even First World countries.

And this socio-history is just the background for her story. The real story is about Palm Island, its members, the family of the victim and, of course, the guilt or innocence of Chris Hurley. Hooper manages all this with astounding balance for someone normally known as a novelist. Her hardest struggle, over all, seems to be not forgetting the man at the centre of all this is actually the dead man. By all accounts a good but flawed man with a family. I'm not sure she manages to keep him as firmly forward as he deserved but it is a hard task to keep someone you have never met at the forefront of a work. Not when the consequences of his death (almost) seem more significant than his life. Hooper tries. It's the only part of this masterwork that felt underdone, though not from lack of trying. It's a flaw I can't see any way for Hooper to have avoided. She seemed to have tried as hard as is humanly possible to keep Conrad as real as any of the other 'players'.

Novelists writing true crime often find it hard to control their artistic flourishes. Hooper manages to weave thematic tones, poetic language and other literary techniques into this examination of reality, flawlessly.

This book is everything a novel should be: a compelling narrative full of masterful language, engaging characters and well-drawn settings. It reveals deep truths about society, humanity and ourselves. And it's all true.

This book may be the book that all literary society is talking about, but screw them – 'Tall Man' should be the book EVERYONE is talking about. If nothing else, spreading this story of life in a remote Aboriginal community may help spread some sort of understanding to the rest of the world.

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