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Natural Flights of the Human Mind

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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 ...

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Natural Flights of the Human Mind: A Novel

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Grappling with larger-than-life issues of guilt, redemption and forgiveness, Morrall showcases the kind of quirky characters and improbable plotting that made her debut, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, a finalist for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. Is a 50-something hermit, Peter Straker, responsible for the deaths of 78 people a quarter-century ago, when he crashed his small plane into a moving passenger train? The coroner ruled the crash an accident, but the details are hazy in Peter's memory, part of his former life as a drunken playboy. Eaten by guilt, Peter doesn't speak except to the 78 victims, who now live in his head: "There isn't room in his mind for anyone else." For two years, he has corresponded with the passengers' families under false pretenses, fueling his own guilt and inciting the families to seek him out for revenge. When morose, embittered Imogen Doody, a 40-ish school caretaker and writer, inherits a dilapidated cottage near the decommissioned lighthouse where Peter lives, Peter begins a tentative engagement with the world of the living, pursuing an unlikely relationship with her. Morrall is a deft guide through the landscape of grief, but her artistic prose can distance readers from her characters. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A pair of solitary souls confront their old ghosts in Morrall's follow-up to the Man Booker-nominated Astonishing Splashes of Colour (2004). Peter Straker is extraordinarily wracked by guilt: He holds himself responsible for the deaths of 78 people in a train wreck nearly 25 years ago, and since the accident he's been living quietly-indeed, practically mute-in a lighthouse on the Devon coast. The son of a wealthy family, he has the means to do nothing but give himself hell for his actions, rarely letting the accident escape his mind. Unwittingly entering his life is mousy, cranky Imogen Doody, who has a host of problems of her own: She bears the weight of her sister's suicide; her husband has abandoned her; and though she's just inherited a house near the lighthouse, she has no idea how to manage it after years of neglect have rotted the place. What ensues during the first half of the novel isn't a romance but a smartly rendered portrait of how these two emotionally stunted, selfish souls learn simply to talk to one another; Morrall has an excellent ear for dialogue, which clarifies Imogen's unthinkingly critical attitude and Peter's outsize capacity for self-flagellation. In the year that follows, Imogen's home becomes more liveable, her relationship with Peter gains some warmth and Morrall offers more details on the extent to which Peter is responsible for the train wreck, while the relatives of those killed plot to confront him. Morrall is a fine stylist, and while her story is much more propulsive than most hefty meditations on guilt and shame, it also suffers from a distracting tidiness that saps its energy in the later chapters. The cracks in Imogen's home and Peter's lighthousemake neat metaphors for their broken pasts, and the characters who arrive by the end exist mainly to offer platitudes about conquering demons. Not so much a failure as a missed opportunity-a potentially nuanced story about one's capacity for forgiveness that gives way to movie-of-the-week sentimentality.
From the Publisher
Praise for Astonishing Splashes of Colour:

“Extremely well written and compulsively readable. . . . Morrall has written a genuinely solid and satisfying work of fiction, skilfully plotted and fielding a cast of fully realised and individualised characters. More please.”
Sunday Times

“Shocking, heart-stopping and completely absorbing.”
The Observer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060843366
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/13/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Clare Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. She is a music teacher with two grown children. She lives in Birmingham, England.

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Read an Excerpt

Natural Flights of the Human Mind
A Novel Chapter One

He dreams of skulls. Seventy-eight of them...factors 1, 2, 3, 13 and 78. While the rest of the world conjures up sheep, he counts skulls, hoping that the number is smaller, that someone made a mistake, that the missing ones are really alive somewhere in the world after all. Once or twice, he only manages to reach sixty-eight, but he can't turn away and be satisfied. He has to count again and bring himself to the same degree of culpability as before. Sometimes there are more than seventy-eight and he feels the sweat in his bed, the heat of his fear, and wakes up abruptly.

He knows there are seventy-eight. Why does his mind play tricks on him? Why does he count at all when he knows the answer before he begins?

He lies completely still and waits for the physical manifestations of his fear to ease. If he doesn't move, the heat will go, the sweat will dry and it will be just him, Peter Straker, no skulls, alone in his lighthouse in Devon, living with the shriek of the gulls and the frenetic howl of the wind.

Once a week, Straker goes shopping. He starts his day by going down to one of the three keepers' cottages and boiling up a saucepan of water, then washes meticulously. Cleanliness is important to him...it's the last barrier between the uncertainty of his precarious existence and barbarity. He selects a white shirt, a silk tie...pale blue with jagged dark blue patterns down it...and the navy pin-striped suit that he's worn once a week for twenty-four years. He takes it to the dry cleaner's on the first Wednesday of every month. He can't find a matching pair of socks, so he puts on one brown and one green. Then he pulls on his yellow oilskins and boots.

As he walks down the stairs, he passes Suleiman and Magnificent. They usually sit on a windowsill, almost on top of each other, their long Siamese faces turning together to watch him pass. They spend most of their time on this windowsill, dozing comfortably, sitting up every now and again to watch the gulls soaring outside, their ears twitching as they remember their younger glory days, a time when they were more interested in chasing birds than keeping warm.

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. When he stops stroking them and starts to descend, they watch him with a resigned disappointment, but he can't stay there for ever. He has other things to do.

He carries on down, and opens the door to the cliff-head, stopping, as always, to fight for a breath, and calculate the energy required to stay upright. The short blades of grass have surrendered to the constant gales, tugged mercilessly to one side, their shiny blades rippling in the occasional sunshine. He leans in the opposite direction to the wind, not bothering to lock the door behind him. There's nothing of value in the lighthouse, and people don't come out here, miles from human habitation. They do occasionally pause in the middle of coach-trips, which incorporate all the local sights (the cottage where the Beatles once stayed when they were first famous, Beckingham Manor, Hillingham Gardens with a funfair for all the family), but the road runs a mile from here, and there aren't any guided tours round the lighthouse. No souvenir shop, no cream teas. On a fine day, they might get out and walk a bit closer, cameras to their faces, inappropriately using the flash. When it's a tour for pensioners, they often wave like children, but Straker doesn't wave back. He pretends they're not there.

'Why can't you just leave me alone?' The voice of Felicity, eighteen years old. Slightly high-pitched, and vulnerable, the trace of a Black Country accent still there, behind her elocution lessons.

'Because I have to know.'

'Know what?'

'You can't stop him.' Maggie. Older, confident, motherly. She was there at the beginning, a voice without a background. Once she'd arrived, she invaded all my dreams and stayed. 'He does it to all of us.'

'Well, I have to know you. You have to be real.'

Felicity: 'You keep waking me up. I was dreaming about marshmallows. It's all too long ago.'

'Rubbish. Twenty-four years is nothing. You haven't even started.'

'Go away, Maggie. Stop taking over my conversations.'

'I will never go away, Straker. Depend on it.'

'I know.'

Thirty yards from the, front door, the cliff ends abruptly and there's a precipice of a hundred feet. Straker likes to stand close to the edge, rocking in the wind, testing his balance, feeling his centre of gravity. He sees it as a daily test. Is he still here? What roots him to one spot? Can the wind catch him out? He waits for the moment, the final battle, but it never comes. He remains hovering above the precipice, never quite certain why he continues to survive. The waves roar through the rocks below, pounding against the cliff, challenging the wind to a contest of sound. Raging, shrieking, howling, buffeting. There's no clear winner, just a meeting of currents below the cliff, thirty-foot-high waves regularly crashing against each other, the spray nearly reaching him. Since he's been here, ten feet of the cliff have fallen. That averages out at half a foot per year. But it doesn't work like that. The closer it gets to the lighthouse, the quicker it goes. The elements will win in the end.

He once met a young man up here who wanted to commit suicide. Most potential suicides go to the next headland where the new lighthouse is automated, so there's no one to watch them, but there hasn't been . . .

Natural Flights of the Human Mind
A Novel
. Copyright © by Clare Morrall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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