Snake Island’s tone is established in the opening pages when a pelican gasping on the mudf lats is decapitated out of mercy. This uncompromising stance is sustained throughout as Ben Hobson delivers a novel drenched in blood. Darkly lit as though it were a chiaroscuro study of crime and punishment, Hobson’s second book explores generational abuse and retributive action. Violence indeed begets violence, spilling across the path of every unfortunate character.
When Caleb Moore’s assault on his wife finally lands him a prison term, his parents are determined not to visit him – to allow their damnation to be felt through their keen negligence. After two years of Caleb’s incarceration, however, his father, Vernon, comes to the understanding that his son’s miscreant behaviour may be partly his fault and it’s his job to set it right.
Belated paternal regret leads Vernon to take on the Cahills, the reigning family of terror in their small Victorian town, who’ve been paying off the prison governor and the local cops while running a marijuana business. The elder Cahill son, Brendan, has been bashing up Caleb in prison with impunity, in a misguided attempt to avenge Caleb’s ex-wife. Vernon’s attempt to stop Brendan’s abuse leads to protracted warfare.
Hobson’s narrative is shared among the compact cast; Vernon and Caleb are the protagonists, but the other players also have a voice, including the crooked police officer Sharon Wornkin, whose probity is compromised under the Cahills’ domination, and the younger Cahill brother, Sidney, whose moral compass is not as bent as the rest of his clan but who nonetheless has no choice but to defend their honour.
There is little tenderness in this book about power wrangles fuelled by machismo; it’s a tragic tableau that becomes progressively more ragged and desperate, with only chinks of light allowed through. At times the relentless violence feels a bit overdone, and committed more for shock value than credibility. Hobson is non-discriminatory in this regard: men, women and animals are all brutalised. But his spare, muscular writing is captivating; and in the end, the scales are evenly weighted: corruption, rage and revenge are counterbalanced by loyalty, faith and redemption.
Allen & Unwin, 344pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Ben Hobson, Snake Island". Subscribe here.