Saturday, June 6, 2009


The roman de nos jours is, most definitely, Giles Foden's Turbulence.

There were extended reviews last weekend in the Saturday Times (by Paul Watkins), the Sunday Times (by Phil Baker), the Telegraph (by Toby Clements), the Sunday Telegraph (by David Robson, and the nearest to Malcolm's taste -- so see also below) and, doubtless, elsewhere. This weekend, Mark Lawson piles in for the Guardian, following Foden's own piece last week on Anthony Beevor's D-Day (which was done over for last Sunday's Observer by Dominic Sandbrook).

All the usual suspects, one might feel.

In all of that, Malcolm was pleased to see Simon Long, a vox pop reviewer for Amazon, making this link:
I had hoped that Giles Foden's Turbulence would be a novel in the vein of Robert Harris' Enigma, describing a scientist's contribution to the Allied victory in World War II - the blurb suggested that it might be. Yes, this is a book about a scientist and the contribution he makes to the war effort, but I'm afraid that is where the similarities end.

Fundamentally, nothing very much happens in this book at all. There are hints at stilted relationships, none of which go anywhere; there is a large sprinkling of technical jargon which I struggled to understand (in spite of having a degree in engineering) and there are a couple of action sequences that don't really fit with the general inertia of the rest of the book. The characters are all largely uninteresting - I certainly felt no burning desire to find out what happened to any of them. The story, such as it is, is basically tedium interrupted by a couple of rather far-fetched incidents. The author's writing style is best described as cold and formal - he completely fails to produce much of a degree of interest in either the events or the characters of the novel.
The differences are that Harris is patently (and successfully) writing a thriller, in the all-knowing third-person; while Foden is aiming for something deeper, first-person revelatory, and more arty. Even when Harris goes deeper and psychological (as with Ghost), he seems more adept. Of course, the truly-sympathetic could suggest that such criticisms of Foden's book are merely reflections of the damaged personality that is the central character.

Robson's review addresses the same issue, from another, wider, perspective:
The facts about D-Day have been well documented, as have the contributions made by the meteorologists involved, including James Stagg of the RAF, who persuaded Eisenhower to change his plans, and the Norwegian Sverre Petterssen. So what is the point of inventing a fictional meteorologist called Henry Meadows, who works with Stagg and Petterssen, then becomes the star of the show, with a brilliant weather-forecasting coup? Foden is not enriching history, but impoverishing it. There is no real sense of the excitement of the build-up to D-Day because the novelist is too busy with his own jeu d’esprit.
That, in essence, is the crux: Foden has trapped himself in the device, somewhere between a metaphor, a motif and an allegory that provides the title for the novel. The "turbulence" has to be read as meteorological, military, internal and psychological, sexual and inter-personal, and -- gulp! -- haematological. Even the dust-cover, showing a weather map of what Malcolm believes is an "occluded front", seems suggestive of the line of a female breast, an implied fetish of the central character.

To pursue Robson a bit further, Malcolm would append two further considerations.

There is, indeed, "
a brilliant weather-forecasting coup" in the story of D-Day. The hero of the moment should be Ted Sweeney, the Assistant Keeper of the Blacksod Lighthouse. He made the observations of bad weather which led to the decision to defer the Normandy landings by a day. He, too, passed on the reading of a rising barometer and improving conditions that allowed the landings to go ahead.

Ted Sweeney, though, is only part of the story. Weather reporting only became possible with the arrival of the telegraph. It was 1860 that the Valencia station, that last outpost of the County Kerry, began reporting. Soon, a network of stations was established around the Irish coast. After 1921, the network was still reporting to London. With the arrival of the Boeing Clippers at Foynes, on the Shannon Estuary, and air travel to and from Ireland, something more local was needed. In 1936 Austin Nagle was appointed the first Director of the Irish Meteorological Service. The service, necessarily, continued to rely on the expertise of British scientists on secondment. And therein lies one of the breaches in Irish neutrality, about which neither side wished to speak too loudly.

Perhaps Foden had considered just that story: one of the details given about Meadows, that central character, is that he is displaced by the Irish "Troubles":
After some political difficulties at home -- his family were merchants in Tralee in Co. Kerry -- my father had emigrated to South Africa ... he eventually became manager of a tobacco farm in Nyasaland. My mother was the daughter of a British copper miner from Northern Rhodesia ... It was she that was the Catholic, not him, despite his being Irish. The Meadowses were Protestants. So right from the start I came out of a mixed marriage.
This detail seems to exist for little more than to enrich the "turbulence" theme.

The other complaint, the punchline, in Robson's review is more barbed, and addresses Foden essential technique of blending fiction with fact:
... it is time he stopped seeing fact and fiction as natural bedfellows and recognised that they are ingredients that need to be blended with the utmost care.
The critics concur in applauding Foden's research, though that reviewer for Amazon, Simon Long with his engineering degree, is less convinced. Perhaps with good reason. Foden kills off Meadows' parents in a mud-slide in Nyasaland in 1931. What irritates the pedant in Malcolm is that they travel around colonial Nyasaland in a Land Rover, a marque that didn't exist until 1948. Sphere: Related Content

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