Reviewed by Jill
Looking for intense, sustained mystery? Here it is. Peter May’s Coffin Road is a fitting title for a tale with twists and turns, blind corners and sometimes a dead end. A man washes up on a beach, minus critical parts of his memory, but with enough remaining to find a ‘home’ that must be his. Both the dog and the neighbour’s wife offer an enthusiastic welcome back. Fragments of clues lead him to a body on a remote island. Then Peter May jolts the narrative in another direction – into the tense triangle of a hostile teenager, her mother, and the new man in her mother’s life. Rebellious Karen starts revisiting her last words to her father, and fantasising that his suicide didn’t happen.
Just as the reader is beginning to see the connections between Amnesia Man and Angry Teen, these evaporate. Enter the police, quietly.
May builds each character carefully, by snatches of thought and memory.
The amnesic man garners clues from his neighbours and villagers, and with canny responses, hides his state of mind. His wallet contains no credit cards, no driver’s licence. Officially he doesn’t exist, but the birth certificate for a Neal Maclean must surely be his. Could that be his address? Family waiting there for him? Or is it all very convenient, like the stash of money he finds in the house? Slowly he reconstructs a past, somehow connected with bee-keeping. Did it also involve a murder on a windswept island.? Could he really have killed someone?
Karen, with her piercings, tatts, multi-coloured hair and forthright language is reconstructing a life and a death. She imagines a father who is in hiding, not dead. The focus shifts with her emotions. Her godfather’s evasiveness and fear impel her to go looking. And since home is such a war zone, she might as well get out.
There are remarkable similarities in these parallel searches for identity. Karen’s search is fragmentary like that of ‘Neal MacLean’, but she has the advantage of certainty and a trust in her memories. The contradictory reactions of her father’s contacts and colleagues – their fear, hostility or outright fury – convince her that the official story is a lie. ‘MacLean’ conducts his search for identity and life through a fog. This is mirrored in the reactions of those he approaches – confusion and suspicion. How can he tell what is true? Karen faces uncertainties, but naivety makes her fearless.
The police enter the narrative late in the day. They too have a search for identity – that of the man who died a lonely and violent death. ‘MacLean’ comes to their attention. Would an innocent man fail to report a body? His honest responses suggest evasiveness. An enforced psychiatric assessment triggers more memories – connected with bees. The police move as quietly as ‘MacLean’ and as deftly as Karen.
May’s characters are strongly portrayed. We feel the distress of a despairing man. ‘Since I have no past, I am without a present. And without a present I have no future.’ (181) He retains the commonalities – how to drive, how to switch on a computer. He is aware that he does not have the proofs of identity needed for life’s everyday transactions. We understand the reactions of the taxi drivers and others who encounter him – suspicion, hostility or puzzlement. We sense the slow rebuild of what he thinks was his life.
We recognise the turmoil of a teenaged girl – angry at her father’s suicide which left her abandoned. Anger turns to sorrow as she remembers the last words she said to him. She oscillates between optimism, despair and determination. In many ways she is just a young girl travelling far from home, yet she is mature enough to exploit a stolen credit card. She removes the medals of rebellion, tones down the dress and covers the tatts. She travels to unfamiliar cities to confront strangers. Their reactions aren’t what she expected. She has a faith that the Uncle Michael who lurks in Facebook is her Uncle Michael. Her boldness and idealistic optimism start to waver.
May has written a tightly-constructed story. He doesn’t waste time and space. The writing matches the mood of the moment. It is slow and tentative when ‘MacLean’ is at his most vulnerable. Karen’s angry exchanges with her mother or her teacher are staccato. The rhythm alters when she starts to plot her search strategy online. The local police are methodical and persistent. The ease of their purpose and working relationship is reflected in neat and precise writing.
Identity is the common thread. A lot of people move through the book. We think we know where they fit in, but no-one lives up to what May has led us to expect. The lusty neighbour is hot and cold. The watchful caravanner is always around, yet vanishes, wraithlike. There seems to be no solid ground.
May scatters clues that lead the reader on false trails. As the storyline proceeds, we can see how wrong we were, how we jumped to conclusions. May also sows true leads. The reader starts to build lives.
Peter May is a prolific writer of mysteries. This one is superb. He draws us in to join the search. His unadorned writing fits a bleak and windswept landscape. Compulsive reading. Recommended.
By Peter May
392pp.; AU $29.99