Snake Road is the second novel from Sue Peebles. Her first, The Death of Lomond Friel, won the Scottish and Saltire First Book awards. This slow paced study of Aggie who is devastated by a miscarriage, echoes some of the earlier book’s themes: grief and loss; old age and the infirmities that affect not just the health but the mind and personality of a loved one; partners, parents and grandparents whose emotional inner lives we only really glimpse.
In Snake Road all the main characters are silent with one another about significant experiences, past and present. Have they been swallowed up by the silences or does keeping things to themselves sometimes help and give space for working through deeply personal traumas? Peebles doesn’t provide answers, just gentle, often wryly humorous, descriptions drawn with psychological understanding.
We watch Aggie and her husband Alasdair fall apart in different ways, seeking solace elsewhere, neither able to cope with the other’s pain. Alasdair is frustrated by and dismissive of Aggie’s attempts to reach her grandmother Peggy through the fog and foibles of her Alzheimer’s. Aggie has cried so much that Alasdair no longer comforts her which she finds strangely freeing.
The books starts with Aggie reminiscing about being newly in love and the delight at their longed for pregnancy which she agrees to keep quiet for a while, except for telling Peggy. Alasdair concedes that that doesn’t really count because she won’t remember. As soon as he leaves, Aggie calls her best friend Fiona with the news, who typically asks if Alasdair knows: “only she would consider it likely that I would tell her before I told anyone else.”
Telling Peggy, though, prompts a tantalising mention of another baby. Eleanor, though long dead, provokes initial curiosity from Aggie. Was she real, or imagined? After losing her own baby, Aggie develops an all-consuming obsession with Eleanor despite some trepidation about what she might uncover. She also wonders whether she has the right to trespass in Peggy’s past.
Peebles details knowledgeably the daily trials and occasional triumphs associated with looking after someone with Alzheimer’s. Mary, her mother’s main carer is irked by Aggie’s apparently easier relationship with Peggy, and the insights she brings from a carer’s group which can feel too much like criticism. There is a physical tenderness and closeness between all three women, although Mary and Aggie rarely talk in depth. Mary’s views are often expressed through pursed lips and silences.
Fiona is not really there for Aggie either. She is absorbed with her new baby and less sensitive than she might be to how her friend feels being around him. Again, though, Aggie feels relieved to not need to say much about her gran or Alasdair to Fiona who would normally ask, or pour more wine and ask again, but is too drained. So until the child is weaned, “very little is expected of me. I am off the hook, clean free and accountable to no one when it comes to things like worries, fears, dreams.”
Peebles has fun with funny, if ominous, chapter headings. ‘The Pulling Power of Dentists’ refers to Aggie’s fears that Alasdair is cheating with her boss, a dentist. In ‘Dingo Baby’, Peggy mentions the Australian mum convicted, then cleared, of murdering her little girl. A chapter entitled ‘Where Pumas Prowl’ draws us deeper into the mysteries in Peggy’s youth.
And other questions arise. Why does Mary describe Aggie as a child as “too happy”? When told that is a terrible thing to say, she replies: “The truth is always terrible.” Is it the truth that is terrible? The pain of miscarriage that popping painkillers cannot touch? The pain of love and love affairs, loss and abandonment? Or is there terror in being locked into silence, misunderstandings and the societal pressures that make some things unspeakable, temporarily or for lifetimes?
Published by Chatto and Windus (£14.99)