Having been rejected by 33 agents, Clare Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was taken up by the excellent and far-sighted Tindal Street Press in Birmingham and went on to win a place on the 2003 Man Booker shortlist. With her second book, Natural Flights of the Human Mind, Morrall has widened her canvas but maintained her natural interest in the figure of the outsider. Essentially, this is a love story between two misfits. Trailing blighted pasts and gross mistakes, both major protagonists are the kinds of people who seldom make it into fiction, being neither fashionable, attractive nor particularly intelligent.
Peter Straker, a shambolic 53 year old recluse, lives in a disused lighthouse on the crumbling edge of a cliff in North Devon, his only company two skilfully realised Siamese cats, the most appealing characters in the novel: "Straker stops to stroke them and they push their heads towards him. Under my chin, says Suleiman. Top of my head, says Magnificent. They know they have to purr loudly to shut out the seagulls and the sea and the wind."
Straker holds conversations in his head with the 78 people who died in a train crash he caused nearly 25 years earlier while larking around drunk at the controls of a four-man plane. He has never served time for this due to lack of evidence, but his guilt has destroyed him. Obsessed, assailed by voices, he has begun to keep files on each of the victims, writing to their relatives and finding out as much as he can in a forlorn attempt to recreate each one.
Morrall deftly and affectingly sketches Straker and sets him before us in a tightly-written and well-paced opening sequence that quickly establishes our interest. His peaceful purgatory is unfortunately soon disturbed by a fortysomething school caretaker called Imogen Doody, who has inherited a rundown cottage nearby. Bitter and alone, Doody is the kind of person who feels entitled to be as rude and aggressive as she likes because she has had some knocks in life.
Almost accidentally, the two find themselves co-operating over the renovation of the cottage, and their tentative relationship develops slowly and understatedly through a series of flashbacks that slowly reveal their troubled pasts.
A plane motif runs throughout (Doody's childhood hero was Biggles), symbolising the attempted flight from responsibility each has taken. In the meantime, the relatives of the 78 dead are gathering ominously via the internet.
An impressive beginning settles into something rather too self-consciously plotted. There are some ludicrous coincidences and the denouement - an all-encompassing, closure-achieving contrivance involving a vintage Tiger Moth, a natural disaster and a life-changing recognition - struck me as too neat a way to dispose of something as emotive as long-term grief and guilt.
Carol Birch's novel 'The Naming of Eliza Quinn' is published by ViragoReuse content