Starting at least as long ago as the Battle of Agincourt, the English have always thrived on hopeless situations. What's so astonishing about this trait to us Yanks is that under the very worst circumstances, Britons surpass their famous stiff upper lip, their mustn't grumble attitude, and achieve that implausible state of grace called laughter. Such transcendence should be impossible for Peter Straker, the guilt-wracked hermit in English author Clare Morrall's second novel, Natural Flights of the Human Mind. Straker is responsible for the deaths of 78 persons, whose names and faces have haunted him day and night for the 24 years since the catastrophe. As the details of what happened rise piece by piece out of the narrative, Straker's genuine culpability comes into focus.

Imogen Doody is, if anything, a more vexed soul than Straker, for she lives in an emotional void, with no tangible peg on which to hang her unhappiness. A dead sister, a missing husband, a dying mother and a lousy job conspire to make Doody one of those irrepressibly unpleasant characters which English fiction has always excelled at presenting.

Like Fielding and Trollope, George Eliot and Galsworthy, Morrall knows that the only way to effect a change in such unpromising raw materials is through a direct chemical reaction between them. Doody and Straker meet collide is more like it and somehow, miraculously, at this very first encounter, out of the awful bitterness of those two human wells bubbles up laughter and odd companionability. The word flights of the novel's title has much to do with the story itself. The lure of an airplane can be fatal to human beings but no more so than our efforts to navigate life here on the ground. The hopelessness of Doody and (especially) Straker before they meet is not redeemed by their meeting. The bleak and darkly perfect image of the 78 who died cannot be erased; but the brilliantly rough sketch of two who live who, through each other, are learning how to live finds its rightful, hopeful place alongside. Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.

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