Murder and Philosophy

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In her 1998 short story The Little Mermaid, Chloe Hooper wrote about a young woman who moves from Melbourne to New York City to write a novel: "She had planned to live with a typewriter in a room with filmy curtains that blew, as she wrote, at a 90 degree angle; to compose sentences, one after the other, that were bold and truthful, cutting straight to the heart. And to step outside, jutting her chin, demanding that fate throw bucket-loads of life at her."

Call it wish fulfillment. Four years later and wearing a wide straw hat, the Modigliani-faced Hooper, 28, sits in the lobby of a Sydney harborside hotel to promote her first novel. And not any old novel. Drafted while completing a masters in creative writing at Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship, A Child's Book of True Crime (Knopf; 238 pages) was snapped up by New York superagent Andrew Wylie, who later orchestrated a frenzied bidding war for the book's Australian rights. All of which Hooper found "a little bit ridiculous,"she admits before pointing out the window and laughing: "Look at that cow sail! I'm not very good at changing the subject. Look over there!"

She's got our attention. And A Child's Book of True Crime's considerable merits as a novel successfully hold it. Yes, Hooper's sentences are bold and truthful and cut to the heart ("Imagine feeling like you're living at the very end of the earth, and also knowing that you are,"says her spirited Tasmanian schoolteacher heroine). But it is the book's shifting structure and playful tone-darting between innocent and knowing, sexy and unsettling-that truly astonish.

At 22, Kate Byrne is skittishness personified. When not turning her fourth-grade classes at Endport Primary School into philosophical workshops, she's conducting an affair with her troubled star pupil Lucien's lawyer father, Thomas Marne. In another tug of Hooper's spider-web narrative, Thomas's wife Veronica has penned Murder at Black Swan Point, a true-crime account of the grisly slaying of Ellie Siddell, a local girl caught having an affair with the town vet, whose wife suspiciously disappeared after the murder. Looming over both adulterous crimes is the convict stain of nearby Port Arthur, where Kate, increasingly obsessed with Ellie's story, takes her class on a school excursion. "Our local history is the Ur-true-crime story,"she muses, "and in volume after volume the bodies pile up."

While the plot ricochets among these nested crimes, Hooper's novel is no literary whodunit. Like Kate, it's too inventive for that-and finally less interested in criminality than with the unknowable nature of truth. Underlying the futility of this quest, Hooper threads yet another narrative, this time a faux children's tale, in which Terence Tiger and his band of talking marsupials attempt to solve Ellie's murder. "The unfortunate truth of true crime,"wisecracks Terence, "is that, often, there is no ending."

In the end, A Child's Book of True Crime is about the death of childhood: the one stolen from Lucien, raised "a short adult"by the chilly Marnes; the one from which the Girl Guide-saluting Kate reluctantly steps away; and the one for which Hooper's novel, illustrated with her own nave drawings, never stops aching. With the adult world muddied by mendacity and murder, only children, it would seem, can be trusted. As the young schoolteacher observes, "They believed their drawings to be straightforward, and they were: like the beautiful maps to some lost world."

As research for her book, the Melbourne-based Hooper listened in on some fourth-grade philosophy classes, and wove threads of the children's conversations through A Child's Book of True Crime. "I went in with a tape recorder and they knew I was writing a book, and we spoke about what is truth, when is it appropriate to lie, are we really dreaming That was a real joy,"she recalls. "Their answers were sometimes dazzling."

So is her debut novel, which is both delicate and deadly sharp. There is a recurring, resonant image in Hooper's writing, introduced in her early short story Sensitive Dependence and repeated here in the novel. Spinning through the air, a butterfly gets caught in the steel hood ornament of Kate's old Mercedes-Benz as she careers down a lonely Tasmanian road. A Child's Book of True Crime has that same capacity to enchant and disturb.

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