Sunday, August 29, 2010


Giles Foden has a knack for unearthing fascinating side stories from real events and using them to construct novels and non-fiction. He's best known for his first novel, The Last King of Scotland, where a young Scottish doctor on a medical program in Africa ends up as the personal physician to Ugandan President Idi Amin.

Turbulence intrigued me for the most part, but was ultimately a bit of let-down. It is a literary thriller, based around solving one the most intractable scientific (or more specifically geophysical) problems of the Second World War: predicting the weather over six consecutive days to allow the D-day landings to be planned and executed.

Henry Meadows is a technical officer in the Met Office who is dispatched to Argyll in an attempt to retrieve crucial information from the reclusive Wallace Ryman. Ryman is an authority on turbulence whose work is viewed as crucial to aid the forecasters in providing accurate and reliable advice to the military top brass. Unfortunately Ryman is a rationalist and a conscientious objector who is indifferent to the project and whatever information he does share doesn't seem to be particularly relevant.

The first two-thirds, set in Argyll, when Henry is trying to befriend and get the information from Ryman works well. Then the story turns on a dramatic event which seems less traumatic than it should be. Henry's breakdown after isn't convincing and the book drifts off. Although events become more dramatic, they also seem less convincing and by the end very little seems to be real.

There is also the added distraction of a tacked-on, modern-day coda running throughout which doesn't shed any light on the historical events or add anything to our understanding of Henry or his actions. The final chapter is billed as an address to a conference about the forecasting for the landings and marking the fortieth anniversary. Again it seems unecessary and contrived, as if he didn't have the confidence in the core narrative and felt that it needed something extra. It is a great story and if Foden had concentrated on getting this right, ditching all the padding and authorial tricks then it would be a far more engaging book.

No comments: