02 February 2023

Review: The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson

The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Snake Island by Ben Hobson was a ripper read in August 2019 and it made it onto my Top 5 Books of 2019 list. I had the pleasure of interviewing the author as well, which you can check out here.

Ben Hobson is back with his new book called The Death of John Lacey which will always be special to me, because guess what? I'm mentioned in the praise section with an excerpt from my Snake Island review! It's so exciting when this happens and I predict I'll never tire of the thrill. What an honour! Now, onto the book.

The Death of John Lacey is set in the Ballarat goldfields of colonial Australia and Hobson cleverly avoids any flack for the inherent racism some of his characters possess. The author is clear at the beginning that his writing is true to the period but understands readers might find the views of his characters abhorrent and unacceptable by our contemporary standards. It's a shame authors need to stipulate that they don't share the views of their characters, but better safe than sorry.

The book is set in 1847, 1853 and 1870 but begins in 1847 with Ernst James Montague and later his brother Joe Montague. These early pages reminded me of the last half of Devotion by Hannah Kent, although on reflection, I guess that shouldn't come as a shock. Both books were written by Australian authors and set in 1800s Australia for a start. Furthermore, the interactions between the new settlers and the indigenous population were interesting, engaging and sensitively handled and the landscape was incredibly evocative in both novels.

I would happily have dwelt here in Ernst's entire life story and I was deeply invested in the life he was living with his father as they tried to eke out a living from the land. Meanwhile, Ernst's mother was bitterly homesick and longed to return to her homeland. Unfortunately things don't go to plan but that's where we leave them.
We're then introduced to the Lacey brothers in 1853, but I couldn't make space for them as I was left wondering what happened to Ernst and Joe. We join them again later, but having been robbed of the aftermath of their earlier circumstances the connection to them as characters was lost.

When we meet him, John Lacey - of the title - is a formidable man on a power trip and not a character the reader is likely to care too much about. John has a brother Gray and while we spend some time in their story, I was indifferent to their plight.

The Death of John Lacey is divided into seven parts, during which time we get a glimpse of the lives of brothers Ernst and Joe Montague, brothers Gray and John Lacey and Father Gilbert Delaney. While Hobson brings all of the plot threads together in the conclusion, I found myself not caring too much about any of the characters; their demise or their salvation. But perhaps that was the point. It was a deplorable time in history and Hobson has given us some pretty heartless characters to despise.

John Lacey isn't an important or compelling character in the novel and his death didn't seem to be the focus of the book. As a result, I found myself puzzling over the title and wondering at its significance other than providing a logical starting and finish point for the overall narrative.

Historical fiction is my favourite genre, although I'll admit reading very few books set in colonial Australia. This is just a personal reading preference and I wouldn't have picked this up if it wasn't for the fact that Hobson absolutely blew me away with Snake Island. The Death of John Lacey is completely different and props to the author for his ability to write two completely different books and deploy a different writing style for each. I know it's a minor point, but I don't enjoy it when authors, editors or publishers decide to do away with punctuation for dialogue, but such is the case here and it definitely diminished my reading pleasure.

Covering themes of race, faith, greed, violence, ambition, law and order and the value of human life, there is much here to get stuck into. The writing is distinctly Australian, the landscape evocative and there were some great character insights, like this one from Father Gilbert:
"Gilbert understood that all death was like this, having presided over so many. There was always great wailing and sorrow, but in the end, after the dying had been done, there was pragmatism, and great relief in the work it required. Even so, he could not help but picture Joe's face as each nail was struck and the thought of Christ crucified on the cross and how those nails might sink into flesh." Page 242
The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson is recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction set in the goldfields of Australia, fans of Ned Kelly or bushranger fiction and readers who love a good western but won't get snooty when there is no dialogue punctuation. Ben Hobson is clearly an Aussie talent to watch and I can't wait to see what he turns his pen to next. Guaranteed I'll be there to be an early reader.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Sounds like a complicated book! I might go back and look at Snake Island rather than read this one!

    Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

    1. Thanks Marg, I'd definitely start with Snake Island, it was a ripping read!


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