In Coffin Road, Peter May returns to the setting of the Outer Hebrides, familiar to readers of his Lewis trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen). Coffin Road is a stand-alone novel though, and not really connected to the trilogy; except through the landscape, and also the re-appearance of detective sergeant George Gunn from that series as supporting character.
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 turns out to be someone who seems to know him, though; and without revealing the extent of his own confusion, he learns that he in fact lives quite close, and manages to get back home to his cottage. He hopes 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 than expected, as the house as well as his computer appear to be completely void of any personal documents or other memorabilia.
Finding the lost pieces of the puzzle and putting them together proves 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'm not going to reveal how!)
As usual, Peter May shows a unique skill when it comes to creating verbal images of physical surroundings, and dramatic weather conditons. His detailed descriptions of the landscape etc are a joy to read.
"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."
Besides the Isles of Lewis and Harris, the setting of this novel also involves the Flannan Isles, a group of smaller islands west 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 surrounding landscape, but also the inner frustration of the man who can’t remember who he is.