Monday, 29 August 2011

Natural Flights of the Human Mind (Clare Morrall)

--The blurb--
"Peter Straker lives in a converted lighthouse on the Devon coast with a fine view of the sea, two cats, and no neighbors. That's just the way he likes it. He speaks to no one except in his dreams, where he converses with some of the seventy-eight people he believes he killed nearly a quarter-century earlier -- though he can't quite remember how it happened. But Straker's carefully preserved solitude is about to be invaded by Imogen Doody, a prickly and unapproachable school caretaker with a painful history herself. Against his will -- and hers -- Straker soon finds himself helping Imogen repair the run-down cottage she's inherited. There are forces gathering, however, as the twenty-fifth anniversary of Straker's crime approaches, and they're intent upon disturbing his precarious peace."

--The review--
Having read Morrall's Booker-shortlisted (OK, so I'm a Booker whore, so sue me) Astonishing Splashes of Colour some years ago, I was both thrilled and surprised to uncover this new find (OK, so 2006 is not exactly 'new'...but meh). Thrilled because I had thoroughly enjoyed her other work and could not wait to see what was next; surprised because I found this one in Poundland! I finally scooped up my new bargain and read it on holiday this year, and thankfully was not disappointed.

Titles of novels such as this one are bound to fill the reader with interest; what 'flights of human mind' could be referred to? As well as the more concrete meaning of 'flight' which increases in significance as the novel progresses, Morrall successfully defines 'flights of human mind' throughout the story via her embodiments of people's assumptions, consciences, and ways of coping with trauma from their past. Morrall adds further layers to the fascination that she creates due to her fine eye for detail and way in which she slowly reveals information, thus making the novel worth rereading.

Parallels between the 'ordinary mortal' Imogen and the criminal Peter Straker means that the author achieves her arguably controversial creative purpose - to show us that even if we don't like to admit it, we are all human, we all live under the same sky, and therefore the reactions that we all have to ordinary events in our own lives can develop in more extreme ways in some of us than in others. The origin, though, is the same. Dramatic scenery rises up to meet these very human characters, and Straker's process of opening up more and more to others is realistically documented. The real, physical journeys that the characters make define their internal, emotional journeys, and Morrall certainly does not disappoint us, following on in quality from her debut.

The challenge of addressing daunting themes of being 'second best' and the idea of somehow proving we exist, or validating and vindicating what we do as people, is risen to indomitably by the author, and as a result, she provides a more concrete, realistic and somehow inspiring message of our souls' progress through this world than the wishy-washy ideas explored in books like The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho), where they are often overdramatised and ill-defined. Morrall writes with greater subtlety and skill and does not seek to make any of her characters into noble guiding lights - even Simon and Maggie, who come closest to fulfilling this role, have the ability to become irritated and do not find it easy to forgive.

The novel cuts between scenes frequently, and while some may find this annoying, others (including myself) may find that it adds momentum and intrigue. Even though there are occasional faults - the novel-writing antics of the narrator, for instance, are necessary as a foreshadowing device but are not really convincing enough to make us believe in them - everything else is excellent, and the reader looks forward to seeing how the whole package is bound together. The notion in the novel that people are not all that they seem (as demonstrated by the characters of Harry, Celia, Peter, Imogen and Stella, to name just a few) means that the overall effect of the story is transformative and revelatory as we discover what really lies beneath the characters' exteriors. This process also proves applicable to our own lives as we are encouraged (in a way that is not intended as overt social commentary) to discard the notion of people being perfect and our need to imitate and please them in every detail - that way madness lies, as the author sinisterly proves. Perfection and happiness, as shown by Peter's and Harry's backgrounds especially, are not at all the same thing.

Morrall's deftness with her pen not only leaves readers moved and thoughtful but also gives her scope for further novels focusing on Harry and Imogen, or on Peter's parents, to point out just the tip of the iceberg of possibility. I don't suppose for one moment that Morrall would ever produce such sequels, as I suspect that she has bigger fish to fry; however, I would certainly read them if she did.

other works by Clare Morrall
Astonishing Splashes of Colour (2003)
The Language of Others (2008)
The Man Who Disappeared (2010)

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