A large helping of revenge and remorse!
One of the surprising things about westerns is how often they pop up in odd places. This is because at heart, the typical western needs few set pieces. Take a remote location and characters with a sense for good and evil, then add a man (or a woman) set on redemption and blood.
Snake Island by Ben Hobson not only contains all of these elements but it fairly revels in them. Hobson pulls no punches, letting us see into the minds of all his characters until we know them intimately, and building slowly but inexorably to a climax which is as tragic as it is inevitable.
The plot is simple but compelling. Vernon Moore has lost his son, not to death but to prison. Caleb Moore has been in a minimum-security prison in the town of Newbury for several years after beating his wife. Vernon and his wide Penelope have disowned him, preferring to live out their retirement just down the road at Port Napier in peace, alone. This peace is shattered, however, when Vernon gets a visit from his old war buddy turned preacher, who tells him that Caleb is being badly beaten in prison, with full knowledge of the guards.
Something stirs in Vernon, who visits Caleb and discovers the culprits are Newbury’s resident marijuana croppers, the Cahills. Vernon takes stock, realises he has never done anything for his son, and sets out to make things right. This starts a trail that leads to death, blood, and revenge on several sides. The local police sergeant is in the pay of the Cahills and Vernon learns the hard way he has no-one to rely on but himself.
The book’s greatest strength is, paradoxically, also its greatest weakness. Hobson has a wonderful ear for character and he takes a leaf from George RR Martin’s book, with every chapter of Snake Island told from the point of view of one character only. This allows us to be given an intimate portrait of each character and hear their internal dialogue at the point we need it most. However, this style of narrative also places a burden on the author, who must decide what the reader should see.
Hobson has created wonderful and deep characters in Sharon Wornkin, Newbury’s police sergeant, and Sidney Cahill, the weak link of the family. Hobson lets us see their hopes, fears, dreams and history, but sadly both characters are incidental (or at best one step removed) from the plot. Vernon, on the other hand, despite the time we spend in his head, remains an enigma. The plot turns on his changes of heart and his growth from apathetic old man to avenging angel, yet we know almost nothing of his background. We know he was in Vietnam, that he spent the rest of his life prior to retirement as a woodwork teacher, and that he is somewhat happily married. It is what we don’t see that is conspicuous by its absence. Why does he not care for Caleb? He never thinks of Caleb’s ex-wife or shows any second-hand remorse. While we are treated to several flashbacks explaining the motivations (or lack of them) of Sharon and Sidney, we never learn anything about the relationship between Vernon and his son prior to Caleb’s incarceration. This seems wrong, and may leave the reader wondering why Vernon bothers, as his concern for his son seems to blossom from nowhere.
For all that, the book is paced well, particularly after a pair of enforcers show up from Melbourne to add to everyone’s discomfort. The setting of the novel in present-day Victoria adds a sense of immediacy, reality and grittiness to what could otherwise be a fanciful situation.
The book’s major theme of retribution and frontier justice is on full show in the final chapters, as Newbury descends into a blood-soaked hell for the innocent and the damned alike. Hobson spares few, if any characters from the violence of the climax which in the context of his themes of retribution and vengeance, works well. Some editing towards the end would not have gone amiss however, when we see Vernon reminiscing about the wrong war.
All in all Snake Island is an engaging, entertaining read.
Reviewed by D C White
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: August 2019