Monday, February 8, 2021


Review: SNAKE ISLAND by Ben Hobson (Allen & Unwin, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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?

Before I read SNAKE ISLAND, the second novel from Queensland author Ben Hobson, I'd heard some good whispers about it from crime-loving pals back Downunder. A kind of literary crime novel, very well written. An interesting new voice for the local genre, etc. After I read it myself, I thought 'the rumours were true', as they say. I thought it was not just a good crime novel, but a superb one. So I was very pleased to see it being published in the northern hemisphere too. It deserves a wider audience. 

Before SNAKE ISLAND, Hobson had written an historical coming-of-age story, TO BECOME A WHALE (set against the harsh realities of a whaling station in 1950s-1960s Australia), that saw him compared to literary greats of Australian writing like Tim Winton. While SNAKE ISLAND takes Hobson's storytelling to a darker place, there are certainly echoes between the books of topics and relationships that Hobson seems keen to explore - and does very well. 

, Queensland author Ben Hobson turned his talents to a darker place with his second novel. And first to be more widely available worldwide. 

SNAKE ISLAND is a superb literary thriller that while delivering a page-turning tale full of action and consequence, explores a variety of subjects and issues such as family loyalties, violence, musings on the worth or motivation for doing good in this world, and father-son relationships. (The latter was a key issue also canvassed in Hobson's debut, the historical coming-of-age novel TO BECOME A WHALE, set against the harsh realities of a whaling station in 1950s-1960s Australia). 

In one senseless act, Caleb Moore shattered his family. Now in prison for attacking his wife, Caleb has lost everything, including been cut off by his ashamed parents Vernon and Penelope. But when retired teacher Vernon learns Caleb has been getting regularly visited and badly beaten by local thug Brendan Cahill, while the authorities look the other way, he decides he must step in. 

Did he and his wife do the right thing by cutting Caleb off? 

Vernon’s solution is to try to broker peace with Brendan’s own father. The catch? Ernie Cahill is head of a local family that switched from sheep farming to drug cultivation, and thanks to male pride and unforeseen events, rather than helping his son Vernon escalates matters into a dangerous feud with the region’s crime kingpin.

Hobson intercuts chapters from different perspectives as other characters get involved, including a stained local cop and Brendan’s brother whose priorities don’t match his criminal family’s. 

SNAKE ISLAND is a rich, powerful tale in a stark rural setting. Despite the coastal setting it's no 'beach read' - instead a brilliant book that balances substance and style, threaded with issues of domestic violence, vengeance, masculinity toxic and otherwise, and frontier justice. Thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Compelling and compulsive, while carrying plenty of weight. 

Modern noir with Western sensibilities, from a masterful writer.

While Hobson's debut saw him compared to Australian authors like Tim Winton, his fine literary touch for violence in SNAKE ISLAND sends him more towards the realm of Cormac McCarthy. Hobson shows a deft touch for taking readers into some devastating moments and places. 

Fans of the great ‘grit lit’ tales set in the American South and Southwest will find plenty to love in this confronting novel as it builds from high simmer to blood-soaked finale.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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