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Natural Flights of the Human Mind, by Clare Morrall
Why nobody's going to the lighthouse
Sunday 15 January 2006
Imogen Doody inherits from her godfather a tumbledown cottage and barn a few fields from the lighthouse. On her first visit she tangles with Straker, shouting crossly at him from her rooftop before demanding his assistance when she sprains her ankle. This forced acquaintance gradually solidifies into a wary, diffident relationship of mutual support, as these two outsiders tentatively join forces.
Both characters have histories that caused their prickly personalities. Imogen was always witheringly compared to Celia, her Oxbridge-bound elder sister, until she discovered hot-housed Celia hanging from the rafters at home. Golden boy Harry Doody shocked his parents by marrying Imogen before finishing medical school, only to crumble under the pressure of hospital work and simply disappear. Imogen kept his name but fled to Bristol where she took an anonymous job as school caretaker, protecting her cauterised emotions with a brightly polished anger.
The confusing, disjointed opening of Natural Flights of the Human Mind swiftly and effectively coheres into the reason for Straker's sinister aura: as the dissolute, workshy 28-year-old son of a self-made millionaire, with a successful older brother, the drunken Straker ploughed his Piper Warrior into a train which crashed into a housing estate, killing 78 people. This tragedy is anticipated in the first few pages; Morrall's success here is not suspense as to the detail of what happened, which emerges gradually, but the rubbing together of characters steadily making headway with their damaged lives. Straker's reluctant and uncertain rehabilitation is the backbone of her plot, and the general horror of his crime fails to cast a pall over her bright, spiky protagonists.
Morrall reinforces with no great subtlety her repeated motifs of guilt, abandonment, and the spoiling effect on self-esteem of undeserved wealth and parental favouritism. These underpin a rambling plot that is engaging but sometimes feels contrived because of the number of coincidences that Morrall deploys to bend the plot round to her dramatic dénouement. But cumbersome symmetries and a few untidied loose ends do not unravel this surprisingly jolly second offering.
After the snowballing success of her début, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which was much rejected before being published by a minor press and then shortlisted for the Man Booker, Natural Flights of the Human Mind confirms that Morrall writes with a brisk charm and comic vision familiar to admirers of Barbara Trapido.
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