Sue Peebles’s latest novel examines how much we can ever really know our loved ones, says David Robinson
Snake Road by Sue Peebles
Chatto & Windus, 310pp, £14.99
It’s a long while since I read an opening chapter as both ominous and sparkily bright as the one Sue Peebles – garlanded with Scottish book awards for her debut novel The Death of Lomond Friel – has concocted for her second book. In it, Aggie Copella reflects on how she’d met her husband, Alasdair Thackeray. She was in her second year at university and had gone along to a talk on “Anomalous Memory” because her gran was starting to forget things; he was there because he wanted to find out more about amnesia.
Her memories of that first encounter – as it happens, just after a PhD student had explained theoretical perspectives on déjà vu – soon swirls into the rest of her memories of her first summer of love with Alasdair. But the point is clearly made: even at the start of their relationship, Aggie is trying to work out how memory works because she is convinced that people are fundamentally knowable, even when, like her beloved gran, they head off into dementia. Right from the start, though, Alasdair took a different view: déjà vu was, he thought, just a matter of the brain processing what it had seen with one eye just after it had registered what it had seen through the other.
Later on, you might look back at that first chapter and wonder just how Peebles was able to pack so much into its ten pages. Not only has she already got Aggie’s shyly blossoming love with Alasdair up and running (along with hinting at differences to come) but she has already explained why Aggie’s gran – who is now retreating from the family, spending her time in her bedroom where more things seem familiar – matters so much to her. Confirmation that her relationship with Alasdair is doomed comes soon enough: when Aggie tells him he’s pregnant, he buys her Soreen cake instead of flowers. (She doesn’t tell her best friend Fiona the bit about the malt loaf “because although Fiona understands a lot, she doesn’t understand everything”.)
When Aggie has a miscarriage, it binds her closer to her gran, who seems to have also lost a baby in her own youth, although such are the ravages of Alzheimer’s that it’s hard to be sure. Aggie, though, is – we’re back to the knowability of others again – and if only she could reach her gran’s deepest memories, she feels sure that she could rescue her from the fog of uselessness. The “monkey face” of blankness and unreceptiveness that the disease leaves her gran with is so tragically at odds with Aggie’s own memories of her. They shared a room for the first blissful seven years of her life; she taught her magic, drawing, poetry, swimming; she looked like Vivien Leigh in the old photos. Surely she must be able to do something, to bring some of her gran’s vanished memories back to life?
Alasdair thinks Aggie’s become obsessed, and grows distant. He’s probably right. Putting Post-it notes on which she’d written some of her gran’s memories on the wall, then moving them around to see if they make more sense is hardly rational behaviour on his wife’s part, and dreaming of her gran’s lover definitely isn’t. There are things that aren’t being said here – and there are a lot more of them when Aggie’s best friend Fiona has a baby.
So Aggie starts insisting that everyone call her gran Peggie (because that’s how she probably thinks of herself, not as a grandparent) and goes off chasing Peggie’s “deep” memories, and Alasdair realises that the baby isn’t the only thing that has died between them.
All of this is excellently done, as is Aggie’s growing infatuation with Kenneth, a carer who talks about his father, now finally hospitalised with dementia, in such loving terms that she immediately marks him out as a potential soulmate. For his part, Alasdair seems to be having an affair with a dentist friend called Flossie.
In The Death of Lomond Friel, Peebles took as her subject a family’s relationships in the wake of their father’s massive stroke. Here, the emotional territory might appear to be similarly bleak, yet Peebles’s grace, humour and empathy restore the balance. She shows us the sad edge to Alzheimer’s – the mother gently stroking the back of the chair her own mother now no longer uses, for example – but shows the love that binds the family together too, and how it has grown over the years, just like the orchard at the rear of Aggie’s family house.
“No matter how much you know about someone, you can never understand another person’s life,” Alasdair tells Aggie early on in their marriage. She doesn’t listen, so keen is she to track down the last clues into her gran’s past before Alzheimer’s obliterates everything. But Alasdair’s statement haunts this novel, because Aggie is forever haring off into her gran’s past life, while seemingly blind to the needs of her own relationship with him. And that in turn implies another question: can too much empathy ever be a bad thing?
This is a slow-paced book, but doesn’t feel like it. The reason is Peebles’s own style, which is both perceptive and unpredictable but also ring true to life. On the Snake Road, the most important discoveries you can possibly make turn out to be the ones that you were never particularly looking for in the first place. Isn’t that always the way?
Sue Peebles is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 14 August