Peter May: Coffin Road


This book is billed as a stand-alone following May’s Lewis Trilogy, but that’s not actually quite correct, as the policeman from whose perspective part of the story is told (DS George Gunn) actually features in an important role in the Lewis Trilogy as well, and even the actual protagonist of that trilogy (Fin Macleod) and his girlfriend Marsailie are name-checked here.

That said, the book’s primary protagonist is a gentleman who at the beginning of the book finds himself washed up on a beach in the Western part of Harris island (the two major northern Outer Hebrides islands, Harris and Lewis, for geographical and all practical purposes form a unity), wearing a life jacket and with not a clue to his own identity, which to recover henceforth obviously becomes his primary obsession.  In a matter of days, he takes a boat trip to the Flannan Isles, a small group of islands some 30 miles west of Lewis (and double the distance, correspondingly from Harris), on the largest of which — Eilean Mòr — he stumbles across a corpse, and as he has clear indications that he must have visited the island before, he begins to suspect that he himself is the dead man’s murderer.

The book’s second protagonist is an Edinburgh teenager at odds with herself and the world ever since her scientist father is believed to have committed suicide two years earlier, and who is trying to find out whether that is actually what happened (and if so, why), or if not, where he is.

I tremendously enjoyed the book; May is a phantastic writer who manages to make the Hebrides come alive in all their magic austerity time and again.  Yet, this book has certain undeniable similarities to the first book of the Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse), which I read for last year’s Halloween Bingo — most notably, in that each book features a tiny, ocean-, wind- and rainswept island off the Outer Hebrides where the actual solution to the mystery haunting the hero is to be found, as well as contrasting narrative perspectives (first person present for the main protagonist, third person past tense for all other characters) — and I also have to admit that loss-of-memory stories aren’t my favorite type of mystery; chiefly because I never know with absolute certainty to what extent the described effects of the memory loss are in keeping with what is neurologically and psychologically / psychiatrically realistic.  (Which isn’t to say that I distrust Peter May’s level of research into the issue; still, there’s always the odd little detail that has me thinking, “wow, for purposes of storytelling it’s certainly convenient that he should [not] be able to remember this.”) 

Also, again at the ending, the recovery of memory is happening a bit too quickly and completely, but what do I know … if this is what May found to be possible, then so be it.   See what I mean about that little bit of uncertainty of where writerly imagination and storytelling needs come into play, though?

This all notwithstanding, however, I’m glad I’ve taken another, albeit “only” literary trip to the Hebrides — and not just Harris and Lewis, either; some small parts of the book are also set on the Western Scottish mainland, just south of an area I particularly love, as well as on the Isle of Skye … from where a couple of the story’s characters take the early morning ferry to Harris, which is exactly what I did a few years ago, so this part of the book evoked a whole lot of memories as well.

 


Eilean Mòr, Flannan Isles: The lighthouse, chapel of St. Flannan and erstwhile rail tracks leading up to the lighthouse from the mooring place — the novel’s key Flannan Isles locations (photos from Wikipedia).

 
Leaving Uig (Isle of Skye) on the early morning ferry to Harris.


Harris Island: approach at dawn


The bridge connecting Harris and Lewis, from the sea.


On Harris Island


Tabert, Harris — the ferry back to Uig, Isle of Skye.
(Even the bright yellow railing is mentioned in May’s novel …)



Isle of Skye: Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye Bridge


Isle of Skye: Sligachan Old Bridge


Western Scotland, near Achnasheen:
View towards the Torridon Mountains and Loch Maree


Western Scotland: in the Torridon Mountains, near Kinlochewe


Western Scotland, Applecross Peninsula: view of the Isle of Skye


Western Scotland: Sunset on Loch Torridon
(all photos of Harris, Skye and the Western Scottish mainland mine)

 

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