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A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…
This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.
From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?
Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…
The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.
This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.