Tuesday, 23 June 2009

“Turbulence”, Giles Foden

Giles Foden's follow up to the fame stemming from “The Last King of Scotland” is an altogether gentler affair, looking at meteorologists earnestly looking for the right moment to schedule the D-Day landings in 1944.

“Turbulence” is a work of fiction, and the introduction of a Saudi funded ice-ship circa 1980 at the start of the novel exposes it as alternative history. This raises the question in the reader's mind as to where the point of departure might be, and Foden keeps this ambiguous to the end.

The pace of the storytelling is leisurely in the extreme. While it's not quite a case of this being a book where nothing much really happens, the solitary lassitude of Henry Meadows' bucolic existence in Western Scotland lulls the reader, and diverts attention from the monumental scale of World War 2. In this scenario, the intrusions of the conflict, with submarines trying to creep into Holy Loch and German reconnaissance flights overhead almost jar, yet serve to build a sense of creeping impending menace fitting for the atmosphere of 1944.

At times there are clear nods towards Thomas Hardy. The most obvious of these comes from the references to Ryman as a 'weather prophet', the direct mirroring of Hardy's phraseology also harkening back to the more 'primitive' existence of the Western Isles where meteorology could really be seen as a black art. More striking however than this passing reference is the profound role of coincidence in the work, and here there are clear echoes of Hardy. Of course, given the subject matter, it might be possible to see the role of what could crudely be seen as 'coincidence as something a bit more sophisticated; after all, this is a book about turbulence as derived from chaos theory – could my reading of the links between events as coincidence be a reflection of my crude thinking in the face of the hard new scientific realities being uncovered by 'boffins' during World War 2?

The role of Pyke throughout is one that I'm still struggling to come to grips with. The Habakkuk type ship on which Meadows writes his recollections of 1944 provide a clear linkage, but again, it's an open question as to what role this plays in the story beyond being an unquestionably lovely image. Nonetheless Pyke provides entertainment, and the little elements of accuracy, such as locating his laboratory underneath Smithfield market, which would have been easy to sacrifice or forget about, through their retention, add an appreciated level of richness to “Turbulence”.

Despite there being a generally high level of detail throughout the book, there are a number of ambiguities in the plot that are left largely hanging by the end of the the conventional text, and the appending of a purported conference paper from the 1980s, casting back retrospectively on weather and D-Day (which in itself introduces a number of anachronisms) to tidy up some of the loose ends feels a little unsatisfactory. While a few of the ends closed raise a smile, one can't help but wonder if they couldn't have been drafted around in the main body of the plot.

Rereading my thoughts on “Turbulence” I can't help thinking I've been needlessly harsh on it. When it arrived it was a book I wanted to read immediately, becoming impatient to read what came before. Perhaps it was this level of anticipation, that could never really be lived up to, that's frustrating me. This shouldn't mask the fact that “Turbulence” is an enjoyable, absorbing, and thought provoking book. I finished it on a rainy night in Rouen almost two weeks ago now, and the fact that it's niggled at the back of my mind while I tried to sort out my thoughts about is perhaps its best endorsement. Not a timeless classic, probably more flawed than it might have been, but a good read, and one that leaves you a better read person than you were before.

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