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Natural Flights of the Human Mind

By Clare Morrall

McClelland & Stewart,

400 pages, $24.99

Clare Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, is a first-time novelist's dream book: Published by a small press after general rejection from agents and bigger houses, the novel was short-listed for the 2003 Booker Prize and made Morrall famous. It also built the anticipation for this, her second novel, Natural Flights of the Human Mind, a compelling and quirky story of two misanthropic characters living at the edge of the sea and society.

The novel follows two people, Peter Straker and Imogen Doody. Straker, in his early fifties, lives in a crumbling lighthouse in Devon with two Siamese cats for company. He is in self-exile, almost 25 years earlier having caused the death of 78 people. Straker's wealthy father purchased a derelict lighthouse and deposited his son in it, never to see him again. Straker spends his time compiling files on the dead, writing under a pseudonym to the relatives of the 78, trying to learn about the people he killed, and speaking to his victims in dreams and imagined conversations.

Imogen Doody, early forties, is the caretaker of a school. Riddled with bitterness and resentment, she spends most of her time alone, guilt-ridden by the tragic childhood death of her sister and damaged by the disappearance of her husband almost 25 years earlier. Anger and self-righteousness punctuate her actions and relationships. To escape a painful reality, Doody has retreated into a childhood fantasy with a fictional friend, Biggles, the pilot-adventurer from the popular British book series by W. E. John.

Unexpectedly, Doody inherits a derelict cottage in Devon, and there encounters Straker. Their relationship starts as Straker helps Doody repair the cottage roof. They have much in common: dominant and successful older siblings, painful and lonely childhoods and guilt; for Straker, the train accident and for Doody, the death of her sister.

Together the two discover a vintage Tiger Moth airplane, a symbol of freedom to Doody and a symbol of doom to Straker. It is this new friendship that gives them a sense of acceptance and value, and allows them the strength to deal with the past and re-engage with the present. These characters embody the themes of the novel: the burden of guilt and the search for atonement.

While the story is more focused on Straker, Doody is the emotional heart of the novel. Straker is the victim of the privileged playboy life of his youth. Doody, on the other hand, was an unappreciated and overlooked child. While the disappearance of her husband offers some insight to her self-loathing, it is the death of her elder sister that holds the key to Doody's suffering. Morrall vividly depicts this childhood memory with simple and elegant writing. Acerbic and droll, Doody also supplies the novel with a dark and moody humour.

While the press release compares the novel to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Natural Flights of the Human Mind has far more in common with the writing of Morrall's English contemporary, Nicola Barker, whose Wide Open is also set in a small English seaside town, and won the 2000 Dublin IMPAC Award. Barker's and Morrall's characters are not sexy, youthful and cosmopolitan. In fact, they are downright unappealing: middle-aged, overweight, shabby, unkempt, churlish, somewhat pathetic and vividly real.

But Morrall has an astonishing ability to portray these moody characters tenderly and compassionately. Doody's mother obsessively watches Coronation Street, and there is similarity between the characters of this novel and the long-running television series. For all their warts, failings, flaws and tacky clothes, these are real characters and we feel their humiliations, their moments of courage.

The power of the novel also lies in the smooth narrative, which is unfortunately interrupted by sections where Straker holds imaginary conversations with the dead. These are disruptive and too brief to convey any real sense of character, with the exception of Maggie, a social worker, who is excellently rendered. It is a real-life encounter with Maggie's kindly husband that alerts Straker to the fact that the relatives of the 78 dead are gathering for the 25th anniversary of the accident.

There is a self-possession in Morrall's first novel that is absent in this book. There is too much reliance on convenient coincidences, the blatant symbolism of the decaying lighthouse, the metaphor of flying and the made-for-the movies ending in which all is neatly resolved. While this new book doesn't have quite the same sparkle and crackle of Morrall's debut, Natural Flights of the Human Mind is a touching and whimsical story rendered with skillful and elegant writing.

Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave, is working on a second novel set on this side of the Atlantic. It also features a decrepit lighthouse.