March 2, 2009

Chloe Hooper: The Tall Man

Posted in Hooper Chloe at 8:00 am by John Self

Chloe Hooper’s debut novel A Child’s Book of True Crime is one of those books I bought enthusiastically years ago (the UK hardback had a nice cover), but never got around to reading. From True Crime she has turned to True Crime, and the garish cover will be fit in nicely among the other titles in that section of the bookstore. Still, not many true crime books earn praise from Philip Roth on the cover (“Chloe Hooper’s masterful book of reportage is a kind of moral thriller about power, wretchedness and violence”). But then, not many true crime authors studied creative writing under Roth at Columbia University.

Clearly, though, the aim here is something closer to Truman Capote or Gordon Burn than to, say, Nigel Cawthorne. In The Tall Man, inspired by an article she wrote for the Observer a few years ago, Hooper takes an account of a death in police custody in Queensland and weaves it into an exploration of white v black Australia.

It happened on Palm Island, an Aboriginal settlement and former segregated community. “Fifteen minutes from the mainland, they all lived in a different country.” It is a world that most southern Australian liberals – like Hooper – never encounter. There is little doubt where her sympathies lie: she embeds herself, after all, within the Aboriginal – or ‘Indigenous Australia’ – community, not with the police. But she does not present Palm Island as a paradise. Here and in other Aboriginal communities, alcoholism, domestic violence and child neglect are endemic (not to mention deafness and diabetes).

In the past six weeks, a man had stabbed and critically wounded his brother over a beer. A woman had bitten off another woman’s lip. A man had poured petrol over his partner and set her alight. The unemployment rate was 92 per cent. Half the men on Palm Island would die before the age of fifty. This place was a black hole into which people had fallen.

So police presence on the island is prominent, and one day in November 2004, local man Cameron Doomadgee fell foul of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, was arrested for apparently shouting abuse at the police in the street, and an hour later was dead on the floor of a cell.

The title refers both to Hurley – six feet seven inches in height (“The tall man get out and arrest him,” says one woman. “I saw the tall man grab him by the arm”) – and the Tall Man, a malevolent spirit feared by the islanders, “the island’s combination of Big Foot and the bogey man.” The book follows the riots and legal procedures that arise from the death of Cameron Doomadgee, and also explores the irreconcilable differences in the white Australian and the Indigenous Australian worldview.

Blackfellas saw themselves as inseparable from the land. … Palm Island was settled with refugees … they lived cut off from the religion and culture of their traditional lands, and the despair that went with their removal was often fatal. Around the turn of the twentieth century, W.E. Roth heard old people on a mission singing a song: “This [country] made him die. The place he did not belong to. It was this [that made him] die.”

But there are elements which connect the communities. Both islanders and police are capable of frightening mob rule: the islanders when they riot following Doomadgee’s death (“Many of the officers believed they were going to die. They passed around a mobile phone and rang their families to say goodbye”); and the police when they have a rally to support Senior Sergeant Hurley, all fist salutes and unsuppressed rage.

The Tall Man effectively becomes a thriller (“I was hooked in and set upon a quest”), chasing the inquest into Doomadgee’s death and the subsequent legal developments (which it would be unfair even to outline, though the chapter headings are a pretty large-print spoiler). As a result, the book is such a page-turning delight that I felt I occasionally was pulled through it too quickly to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Nonetheless Hooper has her tricks to slow down the reader and distract from the ‘plot’. As a novelist, she is alive to the language of the Palm Islanders, and its curious poetry both in vocabulary (an argument is a “tongue-bang”) and in speech, as when one is describing what he saw in the police cells before Cameron Doomadgee’s death:

Well, he tall, he tall, he tall, you know … just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn’t he? Well, he was a sober man and he was a drunken man.

The Tall Man is a book which is both important and viscerally exciting to read. And how few of those we come across these days.

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11 Comments »

  1. kimbofo said,

    Thanks for this review, John. Have heard lots of good things about this from my Aussie counterparts and have had it on my wishlist for quite some time. Your review has prompted me to go order it.

  2. JRSM said,

    I really ought to read this: her first novel was a very good first novel (with the flaws that implies), but this sounds like the real stuff. I first encountered Hooper’s work in a book of stories by four young Australian writers that came out in (I think) 1996. Hers were the only ones that were really good, and, indeed, she’s the only one of the four to go on to further publishing success.

    Another great review, by the way. Mastered the art of baby in one hand, book in the other?

  3. Nick said,

    Having just been to Oz, as you know, I’m very aware of the tension between whites and blacks/ aborigines and settlers, and interested in any discussion of it. I hadn’t heard of this title, so thanks for pointing it out.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments, folks. I picked up the book because it was highly praised in the press – for example here and here. It deserves the attention, with one reviewer comparing it to Francisco Goldman’s acclaimed The Art of Political Murder (as well as the more obvious In Cold Blood comparison). I’m surprised that it hasn’t been attracting more attention in the real – and blog – world.

  5. kimbofo said,

    Unfortunately so many wonderful Australian books — fiction and non-fiction alike — never crack a mention outside of Oz, so I’m delighted you reviewed it here.

  6. John Self said,

    You’re right, kimbofo – and even worse, only one non-Australian has commented on the book here! I did think I might be about to go through an Aussie book phase when I read The Tall Man followed by Julia Leigh’s Disquiet (which I won’t be reviewing as I can’t think of anything to say about it, so there’s another one that won’t crack a mention: I quite liked it though). I was also on the verge of picking up Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves which I bought last year. However that seems to have been set aside for some of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, which I’m now working through.

  7. JRSM said,

    For what it’s worth, that collection with really good Chloe Hooper stories in it was called More Beautiful Lies, from Vintage Australia.

  8. jem said,

    Sounds great – I enjoyed her first book a lot. And I’ve always had a penchant for true crime, but so much of it is so badly written. I’ll check this one out though.

    Interesting point in your comments about going through a phase of reading a particular country’s literature. I’ve done that a few times and found it really rewarding. If you dip in occasionally it’s hard to make comparisons, but when you group a few books together you get a clearer insight into a geographical body of work. I’ve read a few Australian books, but not enough in one go. I’ve dabbled in Africa, and lingered for a long time in Japanese pages, but I’ll be interested to hear the results of your Australian reading.

  9. [...] in Hofmann Michael, Wander Fred at 8:00 am by John Self Just the other day I remarked on how unusual it is to read a new book that is both important and exciting. And then [...]

  10. Justine said,

    Hi John

    Australian bookworm here. Glad you’re spreading word of our literature to the UK.

    I read The Tall Man recently and found that it was beautifully written. However, as a “bleeding heart” Aussie, I’m slightly concerned that Hooper has discredited herself in the eyes of the “other side” so to speak – the police and the rednecks and the powers that be – given that writes from a standpoint that is obviously and almost self-professedly “southern bleeding-heart liberal”.

    My only concern with that, was I sometimes wondered whether this book was doing a disservice to the cause of reconciliation in Australia – but then again, can receonciliatioin ever really be achieved in a “nation” that was initially built on violence?

    On that topic, I recommend that you dive into Kate Grenville’s work, if you haven’t before.

    Her fictional versions of Australian history are completely engaging. She has an amazing talent for recreating rich past worlds, and making them seem relevant. Her titles in this genre include:
    - Joan Makes History
    - The Secret River
    - The Lieutenant

    Have you heard of these?

    Sayonara

  11. John Self said,

    Hi Justine, thanks for your comment.

    I do know Kate Grenville, and have read The Idea of Perfection some years ago. I had mixed feelings about it at the time, but I must admit that it has grown on me since, at least in memory, and I wouldn’t mind reading more of her stuff. However I did give up on The Secret River (which was ubiquitous here a few years ago, probably on account of its Booker shortlisting) as I thought it tended to hammer the reader over the head with the points it wanted to make; though as I didn’t read it all, you are entitled to take my views with a pinch of salt. And I’m afraid I haven’t heard many good things about The Lieutenant, which people seem to have regarded as a poor sister to The Secret River. But otherwise I am keeping an open mind!

    The point about Hooper’s book is a fair one; to some extent she’s bound to be preaching to the converted. But she doesn’t portray the Palm Islanders as particularly nice people, so I think she’s as fair as she could be within the limitations of her own viewpoint. And no doubt she only wrote the book because she felt some sense of outrage at the death of Doomadgee, so her angle was to some extent decided from the outset.


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