Hobson’s dense and entertaining literary thriller wrestles with what it means to be good.
Author Ben Hobson. Image via Facebook.
The opening scene of Ben Hobson’s second novel, literary thriller Snake Island, features a once-elegant pelican dying in a mudflat, a solitary muck-caked wing rising above its body. Retired teacher Vernon Moore, watching from his porch, is faced with a decision.
Reading these grim first pages and the premise, gleaned from the blurb and cover quotes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen this novel many times before (small coastal town, harsh landscape, trouble afoot). But Hobson brings an originality to the crime-laden hamlet tale, and you barely get a breath throughout.
Vernon and wife Penelope’s son Caleb is in prison, and when Vern learns his boy is being brutally bashed – while the cops turn a blind eye – by a Cahill, the violent crime family that operates with impunity, he’s forced to act.
Vernon’s approach is a little flawed, and the fate of the Moores, the Cahills and a web of townsfolk become tangled in a rollicking series of encounters, each more violent than the last. But if some of the characters’ decisions seem ill-conceived and far-fetched, Hobson provides glimpses into their pasts that hint at why they fail to act rationally.
Many of the main characters grapple with the legacy of violence – childhoods where beatings, or the threat of them, were routine – and the effects bubble to the surface throughout the novel, forcing them to question whether they can change or are destined to repeat the cycle. Another legacy examined is that of doing the bare minimum, and how ruin can breed in the absence of family tenderness.
Blame, regret and love and its trappings are central to the book, as Hobson’s impressively realised characters wrestle with the question of what it means to be good, and what makes us do bad things to people.
All but a few of the characters love and long to be loved, and Hobson injects enough good into all but a few of the more villainous characters to make the reader empathise, however fleetingly, with even those who commit heinous acts. The reader becomes invested in their struggles for redemption, and when love and loyalty become the undoing of some, the question of what constitutes doing the right thing becomes murkier still.
Many of these existential questions are fleshed out in conversations between Vernon and Penelope, and Vernon and his war buddy who is now the local reverend. Hobson has a knack for tackling big themes using authentic dialogue. Some of Hobson’s headier prose, with its ‘fury’ and ‘demons’, borders on the biblical, but somehow it works given the subject matter. There are plenty of quips and banter too, bringing much-needed comic relief to the more serious stuff.
Hobson returns frequently to the bird’s wing and other animal metaphors. Characters become wounded or trapped animals, or they’re framed alongside ‘accusing’ magpies or grazing cattle. In one disturbing scene, we lose sight of where man ends and animal begins, when a savage beating sees someone thrust into a pig carcass. These comparisons cast further doubt on whether the characters will grow, or whether they’re doomed by their base instincts and upbringing.
Perhaps Hobson’s only overreach are passages on the country’s history of oppression, and whether the earth remembers the violence committed upon it, infecting us all. But overall, he has managed to write a dense and entertaining morality tale at a frenetic pace, offering no answers but forcing the reader to reckon with their own sense of what it means to be good, long after the final page.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
Snake Island by Ben Hobson
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Categories: Fiction | Australian
Publication date: 5 August 2019