THE psychological intelligence that informed Sue Peebles’s remarkable debut, The Death Of Lomond Friel, just two years ago, is what also holds together the strands of her second novel.
Snake Road - Sue Peebles
Chatto and Windus, £14.99
As with that debut, we focus on a younger woman struggling to cope with the illness of an older member of the family: in Lomond Friel, it was daughter Rosie, come to look after her father after he suffered a massive stroke. In Snake Road, it is Aggie who finds herself wholly absorbed in what appears to be her grandmother’s encroaching Alzheimer’s.
Both novels are about families, how we negotiate our relationships with those who made us, and how we cope when the previous generation can no longer manage. This family-focused theme allows Peebles to dig deep, to give the lie to the claim that the domestic arena is a trivial one, to observe and understand the daily, the ordinary, the seemingly inconsequential and restore the appropriate gravitas.
The novel opens on a romantic note, with Aggie reflecting on her love for her husband Alasdair whom she married after a whirlwind courtship. It’s a romantic note to be silenced quickly, though: Aggie suffered a miscarriage soon after they married, and the couple are struggling, not communicating, locked separately in silent grief. She has abandoned her university course and taken on a job working in a dentist’s practice, through contacts of Alasdair’s who design dental materials, and soon she is quite convinced that the almost comically named ‘Flossie’, for whom she works, is having an affair with him.
Peebles tracks the evaporation of Aggie’s hold on the world with calm and patience, setting her heroine’s self-absorption against the self-absorption of her friend Fiona, who in normal circumstances would be perfectly acceptable but here becomes monstrous, pushing her toddler unfeelingly into Aggie’s orbit. She also sets it against the mental deterioration of her grandmother, Peggy, who, as she dips in and out of lucidity, has mentioned a dead baby girl, Eleanor, hinting that this baby was once hers. Aggie soon discovers that Peggy once spent time in an asylum when she was a young woman – was she sent there because she got pregnant out of wedlock, or because she had harmed her child?
There’s a female line being commemorated here, from the grandmother Peggy, through her daughter, Aggie’s mother (who would have been Eleanor’s sister, if Peggy had wanted or needed another child – Aggie’s mother is yet to be convinced), to Aggie herself and the baby she lost, whom she has convinced herself would have been a girl. Peebles follows a slightly Lawrentian line here on female sexuality and fecundity, not just with her frequent mentions of the moon, which bring Ursula in his greatest novel, The Rainbow, to mind, but also with the women’s connection with nature. When her father, Maurice, first saw her mother, he thought she was Venus, arising from the waves, as she stood by the shore. When Aggie goes looking for Eleanor, she looks for remains buried in the earth.
A Lawrentian connection would hardly be surprising in a book as psychologically rich as Peebles’s is, given Lawrence’s interest in psychoanalytic theories. But Peebles doesn’t bend her characters to her theories the way he does; rather, she endows them with their own natural, everyday insight in passages as beautiful and as moving as this one: “[Dad’s] holding some onions and when he stops to smell the eucalyptus I suddenly feel bereft, perhaps because I notice a slight rounding of his shoulders, the first bending of old age; or it might be the obscure sadness that comes when, from a distance, you watch someone you love doing ordinary things.”
Neither mawkish nor overstated, this sentiment tells us so much about both the observer and the observed, a father and daughter, and the relationship between them. And so the connection between men and women is not forgotten: Aggie imagines a closer relationship with Kenneth, an older member of the care-support group she attends; she glimpses Alasdair in town one day with flowers which she jealously imagines are a present for Flossie; the eroticism of her father’s attraction for her mother is held forever in that ‘Venus’ moment.
To some, Peebles’ second novel may be seen as a walk through her comfort zone, recalling aspects of her debut in both its subject matter and point of view, and they will demand a change and a challenge with the next book. How much Peebles can vary her work in the future remains to be seen, but writing of this extraordinary quality and depth is only ever to be welcomed, embraced and, hopefully, suitably rewarded.