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Book Review: Turbulence by Giles Foden

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In the wrong hands, metaphors can be nasty weapons. This is particularly so with weather, a subject that seems to provide an endless source of both metaphors and similes. Imagine, then, basing an entire novel on a weather-related metaphor.

Giles Foden risks that chance in Turbulence, a novel built around the difficulties of accurately forecasting the weather for D-Day. Although at times too obvious, Foden avoids flogging the reader with the dual meaning of the title, in part because he displays and expresses how some individuals are awed and enthralled by science. There is no doubt, though, that turbulence is an allegory.

Set largely in January through June 1944, the core plot is relatively simple. The narrator, Henry Meadows, is Cambridge educated in math and physics but ends up working for Britain’s Meteorological Office during World War II. He is assigned to a unit that is tasked with providing an accurate weather forecast for a five-day period for 50 miles of the French coast to plan and launch the D-Day invasion. Although not in its infancy, at the time weather forecasts beyond two or three days were frequently highly inaccurate. Meadows is sent to set up a weather station in Scotland, but his real task is to attempt to get the reclusive Wallace Ryman to reveal and explain a concept he derived that can measure the turbulence of weather systems. Ryman lives nearby and now devotes his life to “peace studies.”

Meadows, who specialized in fluid dynamics, is so intrigued by turbulence that he sees it — and shows it to the reader — in everyday settings. He sees it in rowing a boat, milk being poured into a stream and windblown snow. In explaining and exploring this fascination, Meadows also reveals his love for and infatuation with science. Yet while Turbulence examines and explains the impact of turbulence, Foden takes the term beyond the scientific meaning. Turbulence also occurs in our lives. As in the physical world, are the events of our lives random and unplanned? How does one event affect conditions that lead to another event? At what level do actions produce a result — or turbulence? As Meadows pursues his assignment, his actions produce extraordinary consequences for himself, Dyer and Dyer’s wife.

This is Foden’s first novel not set in Africa, where he grew up. Still, Turbulence does a good job of giving the feel of wartime Britain. And although well written overall, Foden occasionally seems to want to make sure the reader understands the allegory. At one point, Meadows refers to eating, drinking and sex as activities to “ease the turbulence of the flesh, allowing us, briefly, apparent escape from the burden of the soul.” Likewise, Meadows describes feeling “as if my very soul were being diluted by the surrounding fluid of life.” Written as if it were Meadows’ memoir, Foden also has a tendency for Meadows to foreshadow events. Setting up the book as a memoir also produces some rather odd, albeit interesting, bookends that frame the main story.

As with his multiple award winning novel The Last King of Scotland, Foden blends fiction and fact in Turbulence. Ryman is based on British physicist Lewis Fry Richardson, who Foden calls “one of the unsung heroes of British science.” Just as Ryman developed the “Ryman number” in the book, there is actually a “Richardson number,” which can be used to predict the occurrence of fluid turbulence. A variety of actual historic figures appear in the novel, such as Britain’s James Stagg, America’s Irving P. Kirk and Norway’s Sverre Petterssen, all deeply involved in the D-Day weather forecasting. The story also involves Geoffrey Pike, a British inventor and his Project Habakkuk, an effort to build a large ship out of wood pulp and ice.

First published in Britain in 2009, Turbulence presents and explores an interesting allegory that may not have succeeded in the hands of other writers. That makes it an enjoyable read, although perhaps not highly memorable.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.