It was an unintentional coincidence that both the books I read on holiday had 'flight' in the title ... or maybe not? I reviewed 'The man who disappeared' recently and was not so impressed, but we did a quick charity shop trawl a couple of days before I went away and I picked up 'Natural Flights of the Human Mind' which I have absolutely loved. When I took it out and started reading mum mentioned that her friend Margaret goes to the same book group as Clare Morrall ... small world.
Doody and Straker are the most unlikeable of characters, but in a wonderful rather than an annoying way. Neither of them is much of a conversationalist; Straker is known in his community as the man who never speaks, a fact that makes him an object of fear and some awe amongst the locals. Doody is much too angry to want to talk to anyone. I have never encountered a character so perpetually angry. Both have run away from lives, but for very different reasons. Doody was abandoned by her husband and simply walked out of an empty life and found a corner of Bristol to hide in, keeping minimally in touch with a family who she feels blame and disdain her. Straker on the other hand has escaped a catastrophic event, that he does not remember but which occupies his thoughts nevertheless, the details of which are gradually revealed as the story progresses. The 78 victims of the catastrophe monopolise his dreams and the regimented structure of his life appears to be designed to both elude them and antithetically to honour them. Having shunned human contact for many years Straker is dragged back to the human race by his first meeting with Doody and their friendship continues in the same vein for some time, with her venting her spleen in his general direction and him finding small ways in which to teach her to be a better human being.
Running alongside we have their back stories, how they came to be in their current situation, but also the internal 'dialogues' that Straker has with the '78' (as he refers to them). Initially I was impatient to know what had happened but I think that she sustains the uncertainty just long enough to make you intrigued; what exactly is the role that Straker played in the disaster, and is he really responsible? His contrition, his remorse, and the penance that he has made himself pay for his crime all seem to point to his guilt. Occasionally there were little flashes that made you think that he would have a sudden 'remembering' and everything would fall into place, and all the questions would be answered, but I was pleased that she didn't fall into that trap. Life is full of uncertainties and the loose ends are not all neatly tied up, and books that do that can sometimes be less satisfying.
A couple of quotes, marked by turning the page corners (sacrilege! I hear you cry) because I didn't have a pen handy to note them down. Mostly I feel angry at spoiled-rich-kid type characters, but Straker managed to stay just the right side of the sympathetic line and it never feels like he's spinning a sob story. Here he tells of the aftermath of the accident:
"Watching him there in front of the fire, absorbed in his own greatness, Pete discovered with a jolt that he hated him. It rushed into him like a strong taste in his mouth, the bitterness of it infecting every part of his body. Pete saw his father's height, his huge weight, his florid complexion and Saville Row suit, and realised that he'd never even liked him. The man who'd always towered above him, manipulated his life, made decisions for him, was a fraud. He had so much money he didn't know what to do with it, and so much power that he had no idea how to use it.
'I don't want to see the solicitor,' said Pete. He wanted to say, 'I've changed my mind. It wasn't an accident,' but he couldn't.
'Don't be stupid,' said his father, walking to the door. 'The car'll be out the front at three o'clock.' He went out, slamming the door behind him out of habit. " (p. 146)
This little scene between Straker and Doody, just lovely, quiet:
"It's an aeroplane, an old-fashioned one, with double wings and a propellor. It stands on the floor of the barn in an attitude of ancient pride, its nose pointing up to the sky, the red underside of the wings looming over them. It's large but fragile, a giant butterfly dropped subversively into a world of helicopters and stealth bombers.
They stand in silence for some time, and Doody discovers that she's holding her breath. she makes herself breathe in and out, but it's an effort, and she's shaking with excitement.
'It's a Camel,' she says at last.
'No, an aeroplane,' he says, his voice deep and stilted.
'A Camel is an aeroplane. First World War.'
'Yes,' he says. 'but I think you're mistaken.'
She wants it to be a Camel. She wants it so much that she thinks she can change whatever it is by willpower." (p. 167)
What I liked also was the genuine alteration in the characters, that came about through their change in circumstance and their new relationship. It was not weird or awkward or as if they had become someone else, it was natural evolution. Doody on first meeting Straker:
" 'Moron,' she says. 'Idiot, fool, imbecile.'
The trouble is she needs his help. Her foot is caught upside down and he leg is awkwardly twisted. She can't get into a comfortable position so she can reach her foot and pull it out.
'Haven't you heard of being helpful?' she yells at him, desperate to break up his hysterical laughter. 'Didn't you do the Good Samaritan when you were at school?'
He ignored her.
'What's the purpose of you?' she shouts. 'You're ugly, you trespass on people's property, you steal shopping trolleys, and you're incredibly stupid.'
Everything she says makes him laugh more. She's not used to people laughing at her anger. It makes her feel insignificant." (p.29)
and his thoughts towards the end:
"She's standing in front of Straker, all flushed and excited, and she seems to glow, her eyes sparkling more than they used to. There's gentle pink in her cheeks, and she appears quite different from when he first met her. Has she lost weight, become fitter and browner from working at the cottage, less sharp-edged? He's not sure about this - he needs to think - " (p.320)
I found it really hard that almost everyone in the story is so utterly crushed and destroyed by their loss. It is a very tragic book, full of human failings; people fail to communicate, are unspeakable cruel to each other, isolate themselves with their grief, hide from their failures and are angry with the world. The one uplifting scene is where Straker goes to visit Simon Taverner (Maggie's husband, she is one of the 78) and he finds someone who truly has forgiven him. There is a fair bit of symbolism going on, what with the lighthouse and the aeroplanes but it's mostly quite understated, apart from the less than subtle ending scene, which was fairly well anticipated but still surprisingly satisfying. Disappearances and grief and loss seem to be themes that Clare Morrall has running though her writing; her book 'Astonishing Splashes of Colour' that was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 also seems to be about loss, ones that are hidden and denied and forgotten. I have put this one on the library list and look forward to reading it.