Natural Flights of the Human Mind by 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 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 Booker short-listed Astonishing Splashes of Colour. Morrall handles her sophomore book with grace, choosing this time out to create a more introspective piece. 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 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 victims. 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 voices he carries with him; his silent penance an escape from reality. Hidden within her rage and stubborn self-reliance, Imogen 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.
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.