In his new novel Coffin Road (published 14 January, 2016), Peter May returns to the setting of the Outer Hebrides. The story is not linked to his Lewis trilogy, though (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen); except through the landscape, and also the re-appearance of detective sergeant George Gunn from that series. However, the main focus of solving the mysteries involved this book does not really lie with him, even if he plays a part in it, and some chapters are also told from his point of view.
The book starts with a man being washed up on an empty beach – gradually coming to his senses, but realising that not only does he not have any idea where he is – he does not even know who he is. He seems to have lost all memories to do with his own self.
The first person he meets after getting up on his feet – a woman – seems to know him, though; and he learns that he in fact lives quite close, and she is a neighbour. Guided by her, he manages to get back home to his cottage, without revealing the extent of his own confusion. He hopes of course that familiar surroundings will help him retrieve his memories of who he is, and what happened to him. This, however, turns out to be a lot more complicated (and his home a lot less familiar) than expected, as the house too seems to be completely void of any personal documents or other memorabilia, and even his computer appears to be blank when it comes to giving a clue to his identity or previous activities.
Finding the lost pieces of the puzzle and putting them together again turns out to be slow and tricky process. Some things seem familiar, and yet he does not know how to interpret them and make it all fit. He also has to deal with a hovering fear at the back of his mind that he may have done something terrible that he should not have; and that he does not even know himself what he might be capable of.
The title, Coffin Road, refers to a route used in the past to carry the dead from the rocky east coast of the Isle of Harris over to the west side for burial in the deeper soil there.
The book also has a somewhat unusal dedication: For the bees. This of course gives a clue that bees are somehow involved in the story; but I am not going to reveal how.
[Some of the information about bees weaved into this book evoked memories for me personally though – of a book that I read back in my childhood. Actually, it was one that belonged to my dad back in his childhood; a Swedish children’s book from the early 1930’s, not famous and probably never translated into any other language, so I don’t expect any of my readers here to have read it. Nor Peter May! But it was about a boy who got stung by a bee and thereby got transformed into a bee himself, and so got to live like one for a while, and see the beehive from inside etc.]
As usual, Peter May’s descriptions of the landscape are superb. He really has a unique skill when it comes to creating verbal images of physical surroundings, and dramatic weather conditons.
It might be of extra help to me though, that I have also for years been following a blog from this part of the world. Some of you will know that I’m referring to Eagleton Notes. So when the man with no memory wakes up on that beach, I can see it...
Behind me, the sea retreats, shallow, a deep greenish-blue, across yet more acres of sand towards the distant, dark shapes of mountains that rise into a bruised and brooding sky. A sky broken by splinters of sunlight that dazzle on the ocean and dapple the hills. Glimpses of sailor-suit blue seem startling and unreal.
And when the author describes the Church of St Clements at Rodel, even though I did not remember it by name, I know I have seen that too quite recently: details coming to mind immediately almost as if I’d been there myself – from pictures on GB’s blog, and also on Pauline’s.
Sun reflects on the wet stone path as we follow it up through the graveyard to the door. Inside, it is completely empty, ancient Lewisian gneiss green in places with the damp. Cruciform in design, there are tiny chapels in each of the transepts, and three walled tombs. We climb narrow stone steps leading to the chamber at the top of the tower…
The setting of the novel also involves the Flannan Isles, a group of smaller islands west of the Isle of Lewis, and a story of an old mystery that occurred there in 1900, when all three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace.
And of course, with this setting, you will inevitably also get a fair share of raging storms and quickly changing weather before the story comes to an end and the mysteries get sorted out.
All in all, I found the book keeping my attention throughout, and hard to put down. I can’t say I know enough about temporary loss of memory to be able to judge the credibility of every detail; but the author certainly makes it seem very real – and does a good job not only of describing the landscape etc, but also the frustration of the man who can’t remember who he is.