Until its rather hectic ending, the landscape of Clare Morrall's ``Natural Flights of the Human Mind" is sparsely populated and bleak. A rundown cottage and an abandoned lighthouse tilting precariously on a crumbling cliff are the physical landmarks that dominate this moody book. But the ghosts inhabiting the minds of its two central characters are a noisy lot. Their chatter, demands, and even their silences provide the peopled warmth that the landscape lacks.
Fifty-three-year-old Peter Straker lives an ascetic life in an abandoned lighthouse on the Devon coast of England. By day, he subjects himself to a demanding, almost self-mortifying regime of exercise, tends to his cats, and makes weekly trips to the village across the bay, where he does errands and speaks to no one. His conversation is reserved for the nighttime, when he settles into dreams in which he talks with and listens intently to some of the 78 people he believes he killed 25 years earlier when a plane he was piloting crashed into a commuter train.
Peter tries to keep his victims alive, not just in his dreams, but through his waking activities. Posing as a reporter, he writes pseudonymous letters to their family members in an attempt to know them better. He researches their lives in the library and surrounds himself with clippings about the accident and its sequelae.
However, his monastic routine is interrupted one day by signs of life at a previously abandoned cottage that lies on his route from the supermarket back to town. Imogen Doody, blowsy and fierce, has inherited it. Abruptly abandoned by her husband early in their marriage, Imogen works as a caretaker at a boarding school. Other than her occasional contact with her mother and brother, Imogen leads a solitary life in which rage is her most familiar and comfortable companion.
Her anger both repels and attracts Peter. Shortly after meeting her, he stands on the precipice in front of his lighthouse, looking out over white-capped waves, and thinks, ``Most things that are left alone for long enough will crumble and decay, like the lighthouse, so why is everything around [me] so alive, so furious? The wind, the sea, the grass, Imogen Doody?"
The two sense that they are kindred spirits, well before they know the reasons why, and enter into a companionable partnership as they restore the cottage and, in the process, their lives. Like Peter, Imogen is also haunted by guilt -- in her case, a belief that she is responsible for her sister's death many years earlier. And also like Peter, she finds a longed-for freedom in the idea of flight. So when they discover a fragile WWII Tiger Moth airplane in a barn on her new property, it is a galvanizing event.
For Imogen, this plane represents romance and liberation, and it becomes a vehicle for rapprochement with her family. For Peter, who knows how to fly it but won't, it is a tangible impetus to direct his attention from his dead victims to their surviving family members.
Imogen and Peter's largely private and parallel journeys through time and memory are quietly compelling, so the book's much more explicitly dramatic and cluttered climax is actually strangely anticlimactic and almost annoying. Despite that, this compassionate and evocative novel manages to stay true to the Samuel Johnson quote that opens it: ``The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope."