Snake Road, recently short-listed for the prestigious Encore Prize, is a story that will be heard far beyond the borders of her native Scotland, and deservedly so. Set on the banks of the Tay where it reaches the sea, her beautifully woven tale is no ordinary domestic drama. Unspoken loss and mourning are the long themes which run like the river itself, deep beneath the surface of the lives of her characters. Difficult topics – dementia, marital strife, miscarriage, abandonment – are broached by Peebles obliquely, with an admirable lightness of touch and humour. At the same time, compassion is always the driving force behind the construction of her characters.
Aggie, wife of the adopted Alasdair, bike fanatic and dental technician, finds herself at sea amid unfathomable family relationships, unable to make sense of her own life. Her marriage, begun in love and hope, founders on a lack of communication between her husband and her that is precipitated by the tragic miscarriage of a sought-after baby. As he retreats into silence she moves back to her family home on the pretext of having hurt her ankle. She spends much of her time with her grandmother, Peggy. A victim of dementia, Peggy has retreated to the top of the house in the small rural town she refers to as Plum Town, on the Fife side of the river. Aggie reads to her grandmother – Agatha Christie and, when plots are beyond her grasp, poetry. In the midst of Peggy’s increasing confusion, unexpected moments of lucidity appear. The mention of Aggie’s pregnancy triggers a series of such brief lightning flashes, illuminating the way back into the secrets of the old woman’s past life. The delicacy with which Peebles handles Peggy’s dementia and her piecemeal but ever-present mourning for a lost child is masterly. Echolalia, introduced subtly, without explanation, almost as an aside, signifies her lack of comprehension. Words lead tangentially to memories, but the pathways to further memories are always blocked:
‘It’s a map’, I say.
‘It’s a map’, she says.
She does this when she doesn’t know what you mean.
‘Where did I leave her?’
Does Aggie have the right to delve further into Peggy’s past, to meddle, to take search for a truth that Peggy wants to remain buried? Mary and Maurice, Aggie’s parents, who have their own secret grief, are anxious that their daughter should attend to her own marital problems. Mary hints – subtly, in true Peebles style – that she knows more: “Don’t upset Gran”. But Aggie persists, ploughing her own furrow, taking on Peggy’s loss as her own.
Lost and abandoned babies, lost parents, lost memories, lost youth and beauty (“creeping away like an ongoing tide”): the whole of life bleeds out against the backdrop of the broad river, as it mirrors the changing sky, its reed-beds, the winter moon and the snow. Peebles’s skill and craftsmanship lie not only in the construction of characters and plot, but in the extraordinary use of metaphor which weaves its way through this story of family anguish and disclosure.
“The snow melted without reply” to her wondering about the secrets of the universe; snow makes Aggie “drift”; the sight of the snow-covered roofs of the town distracts her; white roofs “tip at the moon”.
Peebles looks upwards to the stars, the moon and the sky and downwards to the snow-covered earth for her inspiration; they illuminate her storytelling with the subtlest of light.