Ben Hobson’s Snake Island does not start in a particularly happy place. Vietnam war veteran Vernon Moore is sitting on his back porch watching a dying pelican struggling in the mud flats that his house backs onto, one wing pointed to the sky. When he goes out to the bird he finds that the pelican is already choking to death on plastic and Verne does the decent thing, putting it out of its misery. The bird and its plight, and even its one raised wing, become emblematic, as a series of events and decisions send Verne’s life, and the lives of those around him, out of control.
Vernon is visited by his old war buddy and local priest William Kelly who tells Vernon that he should visit his son Caleb who is in the nearby low security prison. Vernon and his wife abandoned Caleb when he was jailed for bashing his wife Mel but he changes his position when he finds out that Caleb has become the target of local tough guy Brendan Cahill, who is part of the local crime family. Vernon decides to confront the patriarch of the family and in doing so gets in the middle of a drug deal. From there things get complicated and violent.
Snake Island is a hard book to get into only because the cast of point of view characters are all so damaged and unlikeable at the start. Few of them become much more likeable as the tale progresses but Hobson digs into their motivations and upbringing to the point where at least their actions become understandable. Violence in their childhoods, and in some cases continuing on into adulthood, or some form of parental neglect is behind the way many of them act and react. And most of the characters are given a chance to come to terms with their history as the chaos grows and are given small (and large) moments of redemption, each trying in some small way to make amends when put to the test.
Fairly early on in the novel, after the characters are introduced and Vernon decides to confront Ernie Cahill the tension starts to mount, the violence escalates and the resolution of the multiple issues becomes more complex. At that point, so long as readers can stomach the violence, Snake Island becomes difficult to put down. Exhibiting some of the nihilism of Cormac McCarthy and the values of old fashioned Westerns, coupled with and Australian rural noir sensibility, Hobson has crafted an original page turner.