Truth is not only stranger than fiction; it can be infinitely sadder too. The event depicted in this novel’s opening pages – in which an elderly Aboriginal man is cooked to death in the cargo hold of van while being transferred from one Western Australian town to another in police custody – is gruesome enough in the context of a work of fiction. But knowing that it is based on a real life – and death – experience that occurred in the very recent past makes the book a lot more visceral.
In the real world this incident resulted in official enquiries (because one is never enough) and a whole lot of people being shocked for a few moments before getting on with their lives. Helpless to know what to do even if they wanted to do something. Same as it ever was. In Docker’s thinly disguised version of Australia (Kalgoorlie is Baalboorlie for example) the incident results in a kind of civil war. Or what we would call a civil war if it was happening in some conveniently faraway place across an ocean or two. But one of the stories Australians like to tell about ourselves is that we don’t do that kind of thing here. We’re too laid back. We’d rather have a beer together than fight. We do mateship not war. There are entire school syllabuses devoted to this notion.
But in Docker’s Australia an Aboriginal man – an ex soldier just like the man who died in the van – starts taking revenge on the people responsible for the man’s horrendous death. Not just the two who drove the van but all the people who played a role in enabling the death. The one who thought it reasonable to imprison (rather than bail) a man just for being officially drunk. The one who decided not to get the air conditioning of the transport van fixed. And so on. He is joined by another former soldier, engaged in his own crusade, and they are aided by local Aboriginal people.
Trying to make sense of all this as it unfolds is a young female journalist. Izzy-from-the-Star as one of the locals calls her. She has been an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and wrote about another Aboriginal death at the hands of police in Palm Island. But as SWEET ONE unfolds the lines between reporting and participating blur for Izzy as she comes to know the locals and learn of her personal connection to them.
As one of the city-living, latte sipping southerners that various characters take pot-shots at throughout the SWEET ONE, I cannot really comment on this book’s authenticity with respect to the events it describes. Although they are taking place in the state next to mine they could just as easily be on Mars for all I know of the world being depicted. But I can attest to the sense of helplessness that underpins it. We’ve Brought Them Home, and Closed The Gap and said sorry and had more than one Royal Commission into some aspect of Indigenous life – and death. And still we can bake an Aboriginal man to death in the back of a van in the name of law and order. In the 21st century.
Unlike all the official reports that governments have been issuing for decades – earnest and well-meaning though they may be – SWEET ONE grabs the reader’s attention on page one and doesn’t let up until the final word. Not just via the mounting body count (though it is constant and violent) but also in conveying how grim the situation is. For everyone. Black and white. Young and old. Male and Female. Police and civilian. It is (pardon my language) a fucking mess.
As well as telling a helluva yarn Docker writes beautifully. It’s almost like poetry at times. But not your grandmother’s poetry. Imagine the poetry that Mel Gibson’s character from the first Mad Max movie might have written between road races. Sharp and quick and brutal. And gorgeous.
It seems odd to say I loved this book but I did. Despite the fact it is confronting as all hell and does nothing to improve my sense of helplessness and guilt. But I have to believe that things can get better if we tell real stories about ourselves.Or at least I know things won’t get better unless we do tell real stories about ourselves. Even if it hurts. Like all great art SWEET ONE entertains, even nourishes in its way. But it also informs and makes you think. And squirm. As it should.
Publisher: Fremantle Press 
Length: 316 pages