Friday, June 09, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

“To me, the world of fiction has always been more satisfactory than the world of reality.” Clare Morrall

Peter Straker lives in silent penance on the Devon coast in an old lighthouse, kept company only by his two cats and the seventy-eight voices he hears in his mind and dreams. Twenty-four years ago, Straker was responsible for their deaths in a horrendous train crash and has lived in self-inflicted exile ever since. He spends his days reconstructing the lives he destroyed by gathering snippets from the families left behind.

Imogen Doody’s husband left for work one day and never came home, leaving her a bitter, cantankerous shell. Working as a school caretaker, she receives a surprise inheritance of a cottage in the Devon village where Straker does his weekly shopping. Slowly a reluctant friendship develops and with it, the opening of each to possibility.

It is difficult for any author to release their second novel after critical acclaim on the scale received by Clare Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour. Morrall handles her sophomore book with grace, choosing to create a more introspective novel. Natural Flights of the Human Mind is told in the alternative perspectives of Straker and Imogen. Periodically, Morrall interrupts these perspectives with the dialogues Straker carries on in his head with the seventy-eight dead. Thrown into the tide of these shifting perspectives are vignettes of the moments leading up to the accident as experienced by various members of the seventy-eight. Like the photographs and letters Straker collects from the living relatives, these vignettes are word photographs, creating an image of the deceased that is occasionally at odds with the one conjured in their dialogue with Straker.

Straker and Imogen are damaged people living in their own fiction. Straker is filled by the seventy-eight he carries with him, so caught up in the silent dialogue moderated by Maggie, one of the seventy-eight, that his silent penance has become a fictional escape. Hidden within her rage and stubborn self-reliance, Imogene finds only further pain. Straker relies on routine and autistic patterning to stave off the world. For him, “Thoughts should be logical. They should run on straight lines so that you can see the beginning and end.” The meeting of these two polar opposites, destined from the first word to be cataclysmic, becomes a story of redemption and healing through Morrall’s deft handling of her subject.

Straker has lived for many years with his only jury being the seventy-eight and his two cats, Suleiman and Magnificent. Like their namesake, Suleiman the Magnificent, The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the cats sit as his judge, ruling him by opposing any self-deception; however, it is only in regaining his own voice and sharing his crime with Imogen that Straker begins to receive redemption.

Morrall has offered her fans and critics a novel rich in emotion and pain. Natural Flights of the Human Mind is a testament to the damage families can wreak and the repercussions for the community as a whole.

Clare Morrall’s first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2003. The publishing world was caught off guard by Morrall's nomination, not because she was the first debut novelist shortlisted, but because Astonishing Splashes of Colour was published by Tindal Street Press, a new publisher, and only 7,000 copies of the book were in print at the time. Morrall lives in Birmingham, England where she teaches music and continues to write.

P.S. The cover image shown is from the UK version of the book.

See the review posted at ReadySteadyBook.



be_zen8 said...

This is next in my line, so I am so glad to see a book blog review!

Janelle Martin said...

I'm happy to oblige! I really enjoyed the novel, although it wasn't the easiest to review without providing spoilers, which I try never to do.

Stop back and let me know what you think of it.