I was on a bit of a reading hiatus when Snake Island by Ben Hobson was published. I wasn’t exactly sure it was the sort of book I’d enjoy… not specifically being crime fiction or a psychological thriller. However, upon reading, it reminded me a bit of Trent Dalton’s excellent Boy Swallows Universe, though traverses less time and the events probably more tragic and futile.
I’ve read a lot of books set in small Australian towns and am very much looking forward to a session I’m attending at BAD Crime Writer’s Festival in Sydney called Country Noir because there’s something about stories set in rural and regional Australia that effortlessly reflect darkness or foreboding (am thinking of Emily O’Grady, Sofie Laguna and Jane Harper, for example). Generally there’s also a sense of community though here readers are left with a sense of some of the characters living in isolation and despair.
by Ben Hobson
Published by Allen & Unwin
on August 5th 2019
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Thriller / Suspense, Literary Fiction
Vernon and Penelope Moore never want to see their son Caleb again. Not after he hit his wife and ended up in gaol. A lifetime of careful parental love wiped out in a moment.
But when retired teacher Vernon hears that Caleb is being regularly visited and savagely bashed by a local criminal as the police stand by, he knows he has to act. What has his life been as a father if he turns his back on his son in his hour of desperate need? He realises with shame that he has failed Caleb. But no longer.
The father of the man bashing Caleb is head of a violent crime family. The town lives in fear of him but Vernon is determined to fix things in a civilised way, father to father. If he shows respect, he reasons, it will be reciprocated. But how wrong he is.
And what hell has he brought down on his family?
I had no idea what to expect from this book but knew it didn’t actually involve snakes, which is a good thing cos I’m ultra phobic. Instead, Snake Island itself is a bit of a symbol for a (physical and metaphorical) place Vernon Moore once needed, one he describes as his refuge and one that still looms in the distance.
My initial thought on starting was this book was that I’d never get my head around all of the characters. It felt like Hobson introduced us to an endless array and it took me some time to work out how they connected. For anyone playing along at home, there’s Vernon and his wife Penelope, whose son Caleb is in jail. Local priest William (Bill) Kelly is a bit of a touchstone for Vernon as the pair served in the war together.
There’s the Cahill family, farmers turned drug dealers having realised marijuana was a more viable and valuable product. Father Ernie rules the roost and he lives with his somewhat downtrodden wife, two sons (Brendan and Sidney) and daughter as well as Sidney’s wife and baby. And then there’s local cop Sharon Wornkin who’s paid to turn a blind eye to the Cahills’ dealings.
I’d initially misunderstood thinking that Brendan Cahill, the man beating up Caleb, was also in jail so thought the early parts of the book in which he featured had taken place some time earlier (and led to his incarceration). But, once I got that clear everything fell into place.
Hobson shares this story from several points of view. We spend quite a bit of time with some of our narrators (Vernon, Caleb, Sidney and Sharon). They aren’t necessarily our pivotal characters but give us a lot of insight into their thinking, which I think is central to this unfolding tragedy.
For me this book offered an overwhelming sense of frustration. Not at the writing or plot (as such) but the actions of the characters and the bloody stupid decisions they make. It’s a reminder how quickly fortunes can turn and the fact that the smallest change to an action could have meant entirely different consequences.
There’s a strong sense of despondence, but also of acquiescence, as if many of our main characters are going through the motions; defeated by what life’s thrown at them. Vernon certainly feels this way and accuses Sharon of the same thing (as does her son).
This novel is very much about men and Hobson doesn’t give us a lot of likeable ones. Actually he doesn’t give us a lot of likeable characters (men and women) but only one or two lack redeeming qualities. I actually recall now (before reading the book) Hobson having a discussion on Twitter about unlikeable protagonists and what that means for readers… if it’s too off-putting?
Domestic and family violence feature strongly. Hobson pulls no punches in pointing out the sins of the fathers and their legacies. I was interested in how he portrays Caleb who, when we meet him in prison, is filled with self-hate and disgust at the violence against his ex-wife that landed him there, yet he tells us it happened on many occasions. I wondered if Hobson wanted us to feel sympathy towards him, or just understand that human emotions, thoughts, feelings and actions are complex.
Here there’s a really strong sense of vengeance and revenge; of remorse and regret, of forgiveness, and of desperation. Our resident priest Bill, and Vernon often talk of good and evil, of actions and consequences which is a theme woven throughout this taut (and fraught) tale.
There were perhaps a few unanswered questions. I was keen to know more about Vernon and Penelope’s accident and the repercussions. We hear about it from a couple of sources and I kept waiting for the thread to come back to the events of the present… another tragedy linking the two inadvertently-warring families.
I’ve mentioned my sense of frustration at the actions of some of our key players and probably would have liked a little more closure in terms of some of the enablers of crime and corruption. Though I guess it’s more fitting with the dire narrative and dark plot that there’s not necessarily a happily-ever-after for everyone. Or anyone.
This book is very much about fathers and sons and husbands and wives. It’s about loyalties and allegiances – some we’re born into and others borne on a battle field – all of which are shaped by our own personalities and experiences.
This is a thought-provoking read. It’s a book I’ll certainly remember and dwell on from time to time. I enjoy most books I read but they don’t always leave an impression, a recurring stain in my memories, but this certainly does.
Snake Island by Ben Hobson was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.