Review: The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

Earlier in the year, I read The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper as part of the Brennan Program at UTS Law. Coincidentally, like the old Justice Game text, The Tall Man also fits well into the Advanced English Module C: Representing People and Politics (previously Conflicting Perspectives). Although the module name has changed, it appears roughly the same. You examine how people and political issues are represented, and how the form and methods of representation can shape meaning. In other words, it’s all about how language and “spin” can manipulate and alter the “truth”.

As always, everyone has a different story.


What is it about?

The Tall Man is a non-fiction true crime telling of the death in custody of a young indigenous man, Cameron Doomadgee. In 2004, on Palm Island, Cameron was arrested for swearing and placed into custody by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Within less than an hour, he was dead in the police cell block, with injuries akin to being in a fatal car crash (he had broken ribs and his liver was cut in half).

In Hooper’s account, she follows the events following Cameron’s death as well as the events leading up to it. It provides background into life (and death) on Palm Island, the backgrounds of the various “characters” involved including Chris Hurley, the subsequent coroner’s inquest into Doomadgee’s death and the criminal trial of Hurley for manslaughter. Despite being “non-fiction”, Hooper writes in a narrative, engaging style, which involves the reader in her investigations into the people and politics behind Doomadgee’s death and Hurley’s involvement. What she uncovers and reveals to us is a complex and volatile situation that has no simple legal remedy.

Representations of people and politics

When reading and reflecting on The Tall Man, it is not difficult to identify and analyse the various people and political issues at play. What is perhaps most interesting is that Hooper has to piece together a story centered around two people, who were unavailable to give a direct account of what happened. Doomadgee, whose death is the center of this piece, was obviously not able to reveal what truly happened. Instead, Hooper has to craft an idea of who he was through the emotional recounts of his family and friends. Likewise but for different reasons, Hurley refused to speak to Hooper and she relies instead on newspaper and other public accounts of Hurley, his appearances at court, and the history she is able to dig up about his past and the people he spoke with then. In doing so, the ambiguity and discrepancy between how a person is represented (through the accounts of others, newspapers and official reports etc) and who a person actually is or was is all the more apparent.

Beyond the specific people that Hooper describes and observes in The Tall Man, we also get representations of groups and communities of people. Who are the residents of Palm Island? The legacy of the Stolen Generation, Hooper does not shy away from the social and health issues, which afflict them – alcohol use, domestic violence, suicide, diabetes. On the other side, we also see the policemen and authorities, who are charged with patrolling and regulating life on Palm Island – we see the isolation, challenges and lawlessness of working there.

In turn, there are also representations of significant political issues and in seeing this, we have to ask – what message or conclusion, if any, does Hooper draw? What perspective does she adopt and how are they influenced by her direct experiences (during her investigation), racial and social stereotypes, and her position (as an observer brought by the lawyer representing the Aboriginal community). Some of the political issues, which you could discuss are:

  • Aboriginal deaths in custody – how does Hooper represent this death, and also how do the people within the story (e.g. the media, Aboriginal communities) represent it?
  • The legacy of the Stolen Generation and the difficulties faced by Aboriginals – how are social, health and legal issues portayed?
  • The legal system – do we see the legal system as being an adequate means of dealing with Aboriginal deaths in custody, and also with dealing with conflicts and issues on Palm Island itself?
  • Police corruption and the collusion to protect Hurley – how does Hooper represent the prevalence and cause of police corruption and collusion?

You should also consider what the medium or form of The Tall Man is – is it strictly non-fiction? Creative non-fiction? Literary journalism?


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