Book review: Snake Island by Ben Hobson

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

We are an idealistic species.

It may not look that way at times, most times if we’re honest with ourselves, with war, poverty, disease, brutality and avaricious criminality the seemingly obvious defining marks of what it means to be human; dig down a little further, however, and it becomes clear that we long to be better, wish to be good.

We venerate kindness to others, applaud paying it forward and looking out for our lesser man, esteem good deeds and selfless actions, and wish to sup with the better angels of our nature.

But as Ben Hobson beautifully explores in his second novel, Snake Island, with a candour, insight and empathy that will leave you breathless and nodding your head and heart with recognition, what we aim for and what we end up holding in our hands are often two very different things.

Take, families for instance, which sit at the flawed heart of this emotionally raw and honest tale which never once embraces the sins and broken actions of its characters, but which radiates an understanding of how they find themselves, off to their own quiet horror, in dark places so far removed from the light they seek.

Focusing on three families, 1990s-set Snake Island dives into this great chasm between the ideals we hold for family life and the confronting reality where love, inclusion and support are sought but only rarely gained.

“He [Sidney] let them be, shutting the door on the smoke and his family. He spared one last look in at his daughter and regretted not telling her that he loved her dearly and thought of her always and that he would take her away from this place, the three of them, and they’d live somewhere cleaner, free from smoke. But of course he couldn’t say it. He knew it would never be.” (P. 27)

While there are a great many compelling characters at play in this masterful story, three in particular will capture your attention.

Vernon Moore is an ordinary bloke who fought in World War Two, married the beautiful Penelope, raised a son named Caleb, hoping all the time to put the horrors of bloody conflict and lost opportunities it represents behind him.

On paper at least, Vernon has it all but at the heart of what could have and should have been a picture-perfect family life, one he longed for after the nightmarish environs of war where he lost one of his best friends, he has to confront the reality of an ideal smashed, and hopes dashed.

For Caleb has been imprisoned for bashing his wife, Mel, an act so violent and horrific, and so divergent from what Vernon and Penelope (or Pen) longed for that they have shunned him, failing to turn up to his court case and or visit him in jail.

It is only when they hear that Caleb is being regularly bashed by a local criminal by the name of Brendan Cahill, with the tacit approval of the jail governor and under the blind eye of the local police, that Vernon springs back into fatherly action.

His fatherhood is reborn, and while you can well understand why Vernon, and later Penelope, re-embrace their recently-discarded roles as protective parents, his actions result in a chain reaction of violence and horrors that bring into sharp relief the great disconnect between impelling ideals and sullied actions.

Ben Hobson (image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Another character caught between cherished values and glaring realism is Brendan’s brother Sidney Cahill.

Ostensibly a key member of the family-run drug-dealing enterprise that has taken over their home, their farm, the town and the operation of justice, Sidney is, at heart, a man who wants to run far away from the only life he has ever known, take his wife Sarah and young toddler daughter Amy with him.

He knows that can never happen, so enmeshed in the web of flawed family life is he, but he longs, in quiet moments and not, to act on his simmering hopes and dreams, sure that that way lies peace and contentment.

Perhaps it does, perhaps it does not but Snake Island emphasises again and again, including through the pained existential torment of head cop Sharon Wornkin who has sold her soul to the Cahills’ devil, and her marriage and mothering to the grim nothingness of neglect, that the ideals we harbour are often little realised, or not at all, victims of our propensity for flawed execution and skewered articulation.

“Instead he [Vernon] sat on his couch. Studied the void of the television screen, the empty blackness that reflected the same in him. He sank back, lifted his legs, swung them up—a quick drawing in of breath. Something in there was bad for sure. With one arm holding his chest, his face an unknown, bloodied disaster, he closed his eyes and drifted off. The last thought before he went to sleep was of his wife. A memory of the two of them driving complete, Penelope laughing. When they had been young.” (P. 163)

Snake Island is not without hope, of course, suffused with it to an almost startling degree.

But as its narrative races propulsively on, an exhilarating mix of action and introspection, emotion and cold-blooded intent, hope too often falls prey to the sobering realities of a world where power and brutality often win out over the very best intentions of our poorly-expressed humanity.

Writing with a sparse, honest beauty that captivates and immerses you, Snake Island is a tale of vengeance and redemption, of grasping for ideals that often feel too far out of reach; it is also that all-too-rare literary creature, a novel that is glaringly honest about the human condition while being rich with understanding and insight, a story which wears its heart on its sleeve but is knowing in its appreciation of what makes us human, both idealised and real.

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