I'm not going to repeat the plot since that is adequately covered by other reviewers and the Amazon blurb, and, anyway, this isn't a plot heavy novel. Intelligent and thoughtful, at heart this is a meditation on the impossible search for coherency and an overwhelming meaning and stability in life.
The narrator, Henry Meadows, is a young Cambridge academic caught up in the war effort and the attempt to predict the weather to facilitate the D-day landings. He believes in a formula which can neutralise the unexpected, the arbitrary messiness of real life, but learns that it is only the unpredictable which is predictable.
I'd never read any Foden before, and was impressed with his ability to convey character and the nuances of personality through his narrator's voice. Meadows is awkward, intellectually intelligent and yet somewhat socially inept, and seems to fit the period perfectly.
The research is also extremely impressive. Foden walks the tight-rope of conveying the intricacies and impossibilities of high-level maths/physics, without alienating the reader. In fact the way we (most of us, I would guess) cannot engage with the maths is itself important, conveying the impenetrability of the problem and, by association, telling us something about Meadows himself.
But if the atmosphere, register and tone of the book is flawless, sadly the novel as a whole isn't. While this is quietly compelling it lacks that certain something which turns a good novel into a great one. Perhaps it's that the characters aren't quite gripping enough, or that the scenario is ever so slightly artificial, an attempt to write up the importance of Meadows' work? I'm not sure, but while I enjoyed this book greatly, I could easily have stopped reading at any point without having a compelling need to finish it.
So overall a fine work with some excellent writing. But it didn't make me desperate to read the Foden back catalogue.
Having neither read Giles Foden before, or seen the last king of scotland, I arrived at turbulence without preconceptions. I was interested in the subject and had never really thought about the detail that went into the planning of the D-Day invasion.
So it has all the right ingredients for a brit to enjoy, war, intrigue, conflict, weather and a sort of bumbling hero type.
I will leave other reviewers to go into the detail of the story ... what I found was an enjoyable (if sometimes heavy going) factual novel that manages to fill in some of what it was like to live during the war. My wife is doing her family tree and was interested in some of the snipets I read out.
I quite like the bumbing 'anti-hero' approach that obviously comes good in the end (with a little help).
I read the book on a two week holiday on the beach ... I thought it was perfect for that and has been returned to my bookshelf covered in suntan and sand stains. If you are expecting deep and insightful, maybe this isn't the book for you. If you want an entertaining read whilst gently toasting on a beach ... I thought it was great.
Do you remember the old poem ?
Whether the weather be mild or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot,
We'll weather the weather whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.
This definitely wasn't the case in the planning for the D-Day landings, for the lives of thousand upon thousands depended on the meteorologists getting their forecasting right. Turbulence is a fictional story based upon their experiences. Some of those within, such as James Stagg who led the team of British and American weather forecasters, are real, but others such as Henry Meadows, the novel's main character, are not.
Meadows is a young mathematician working for the meteorological office. The MO is having problems in forecasting the weather sufficiently in advance to make planning for the Normandy landings. Meadows is assigned to a station in Scotland with a secret mission to talk to a former weather forecaster Ryman, who as a Quaker is now devoting his skills to peace studies. Ryman had developed a new system of forecasting to take account of turbulence patterns, but had not told anyone - Meadows is to winkle it out of him. But a tragic accident kills Ryman before he makes enough progress in befriending him.
Meadows is reassigned to be Stagg's assistant. The stress the meteorologists were under to get the weather forecast right for D-Day was immense - the right combination of moon, tides, and skies was proving impossible to predict. When some anomalies in readings are consistently reported from one of the weather ships in the atlantic Meadows is convinced that Ryman had something and persuades Stagg to let him carry on Ryman's work... The rest, as they say, is history.
Starting this novel, which begins with the older Meadows now involved in a project to ship water from the Antarctic to the Gulf, I didn't know whether to expect a dry story full of technical detail, a boy's own adventure, or intrigue and WWII office politics. Inevitably perhaps it combined all these aspects, but not quite in balance to make it wholely successful. Meadows is undoubtedly very bright but is not good socially; he's a bit impulsive and self-centred and not very likeable. There is some science in this generally well-researched novel, but not enough about how they did the weather forecasting and turbulence itself. I did enjoy the Scottish section and the developing relationship between Meadows and Ryman. This part rather reminded me of Robert Edric's excellent book Gathering the Water - about an Victorian engineer sent to prepare the way for the flooding of a valley - that got the balance completely right. Foden's novel was an interesting and enjoyable read for the most part however, but it is not a masterpiece.
I'll admit when I realised that Foden was currently fulfilling the role of Professor of Cerative Writing at the University of East Anglia (a department with a considerable reputation, I realise) my heart rather sank.
I didn't know whether to expect a sort of formula book ("Instant Bestseller - Just Add Water!" kind of thing) or something very obviously terribly clever but completely impenetrable (I can think of a few...) to a mere mortal like myself.
As it happens I was very agreeably surprised. The book is indeed clever - the imagery, narrative devices, ambiguities and little twists are all there, but it is an eminently readable tome.
The plot concerns the build-up to D-Day 1944 as experienced by a young meteorologist charged with extracting the method necessary to provide an accurate forecast five days in advance as required for the landings from the one man who is believed capable of doing so. Unhappily for our protagonist this man is a pacifist, disinclined to be helpful to the war effort.
The complex emotions - turbulence - experienced under severe stress by the narrator and by those with whom he comes into contact are elegantly examined, but this book is also a thumping good yarn, so from my point of view an ideal novel.
Foden competently blends his fictional account into the actual historical one, something that plenty of authors have tried and ended up looking slightly silly. He very clearly did his homework, which means that the book is also an interesting document with regards to the events leading up to the invasion of Europe. Certainly I learned a thing or two.
Overall a thoroughly enjoyable book which has left me determined to rectify the omission of never having read his earlier output.
on 24 January 2010
Turbulence is Giles Foden's account of making critical decisions based on chaotic (in the scientific sense) events, applied in this novel to a major wartime event. The first section of the book introduces the main character and is suffused with melancholy, of things lost, decisions made, opportunities missed, before it really hits its stride and we're lead into the main story, which is full of intrigue and concerns a reclusive meteorologist who may hold the secret to accurate weather predictions, something essential to the latter part of the story.
The tale is perfectly paced and is certainly an intelligent thriller, reminding me somewhat of the works of Arturo Perez-Reverte in that it doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader or rely on lowest common denominator plot tricks. There is what appears to be an absolute howler towards the end of the book though, where a symposium dating from June 1984 features an address by someone apparently using PowerPoint, a product which wasn't developed until August of that year and wasn't called PowerPoint until its 1987 release.
The story has a very cinematic, visual appeal which will no doubt lead to the film rights being snapped up, if they haven't already been bought. An excellent read that brightened a winter weekend.
This is a fictionalised account of the Allied struggle to forecast a clear window of weather in which to launch the invasion of France in June 1944. It starts however aboard a ship made of ice on its way from the Antarctic to Saudi Arabia where the central character, Harry Meadows, recalls his war as a meteorologist. This starts with him being posted to Argyll to spy on a pacifist meteorologist who has invented a method of predicting how turbulent a pocket of air is, thus unlocking more accurate weather forecasts. After some tragic events Harry is posted to the D Day and commissioned in the RAF and ends up being sent in a glider into Normandy on the morning of 6 June 1944.
I found this book slow to start with and the character of Harry difficut to engage with. The pedant in me also got annoyed at some of the wildlife references, White Storks don't breed in Nyasaland! Later the book picked up and I got a real sense of how much was riding on the efforts of the Allied weather forecasters to ensure that the D Day landings went ahead. Many of the characters in the book are real historical figures, including the mad scientist Pyke. Overall I did enjoy this book despite the unsympathetic main character and the slow start.
This is an excellent read, dealing with two constant concerns of the older Brit, WW11 and the weather. It is very well written, has engaging characters and a very clever style and exposition built round the build up to D Day and the need for an accurate weather forecast. With an interesting side plot about ice and its uses, presumably as a comment on the current state of the planet.
The central character is sent to try to find the key to weather prediction from a man who has turned his back on his work in that area and instead is interested in peace, demilitarisation and co-existence. The story holds the attention, but the real meat lies underneath. It's not a war story to read alonside Beevor.
The book isn't really about the war, it's more of a reflection on the essential randomness of things, whatever we may do to try to marshall them. The ability to aknowledge, comprehend and try to make sense of the random, to organise it in some way, lies at the heart of it. There are also some very funny, if rather dark, happenings, and a real tragedy at the centre of it all. How unintended consequences can come along and bite really hard at our very core. Very good and highly recommended.
Everyone talks about the weather, probably every day, but it is unusual to find a novel on the subject. Giles Foden's Turbulence mixes a blend of fact and fiction to give an account of the desperate search for the right weather conditions for the D Day landings. Foden is instructive and easy for the weather novice to understand and his tale is an exciting one. His central character, Henry Meadows, a mixture of bungling, booze and brilliance, is finely drawn and the story unfolds in a thoroughly satisfying way. Of course we know the outcome, but that in no way negates the excitement of the chase. This was a fine book, a real page turner, and I enjoyed it enormously. Highly recommended.
Having heard Giles Foden give a couple of publicity interviews on Radio 4 and watched recent coverage of the D-Day commemorations, I was really looking forward to reading this book. It turned out to be a sore disappointment.
The premise seemed to promise so much - Henry Meadows is a young meteorologist entrusted with developing a method of weatcher forecasting that will allow military commanders to choose the optimal timing for the D-Day landings. Under cover of establishing an observation station, he is sent to Scotland to try and extract information from 'The Prophet' Wallace Ryman, the reclusive author of a mathematical formula for calculating turblence, who has now dedicated himself to peace studies.
I was expecting the excitement of a wartime adventure with the intellectual stimulation of an explanation of the nascent science of forecasting. But I found neither excitement nor stimulation. Little happens for large chunks of the narrative. The climax of the plot hinges round a grotesque and rather preposterous accident. While there were some beautifully written passages about turbulence, I learnt less than expected about weather forecasting and the explanations of the "revelations" made possible by the Ryman number failed to inspire me, perhaps because Foden was forced to over-simplify complex mathematical ideas to such an extent they often sounded banal.
The book fails to engage on the emotional level too, as it is peopled by a distinctly unsympathetic bunch of characters. Meadows' bungling quickly grows tedious. By the end I was finding it hard to distinguish one weather-forecasting boffin from another. Gill, Ryman's wife, is rounded out with a little more human interest, but in the end she is reduced to a convenient plot device to bring Meadows some answers.
Meadows' later narrative as he undertakes a madcap voyage in the 1980s on an ice ship to take water to the Middle East frames the novel, but it is not clear what this device is supposed to add. A note from the author at the end explains that the character of Ryman is based on a real-life distant relative of his, but doesn't make clear how much of the rest of the story is fact and how much fiction, which I found frustrating.
Giles Foden can undoubtedly write well, but this book, which I had so eagerly anticipated, failed to engage me on any level. Perhaps it was my own fault for coming to it with a pre-conceived notion of what it would be like, but that was only based on interviews I had heard with Foden himself. I had been planning to give this book as a gift to someone interested in both weather and history, but I enjoyed it so little I don't think I'll be inflicting it on anyone else.
Turbulence, published at the time of the D Day anniversary commemorations, casts a weather eye over the invasion.
It's told from the perspective of Henry Meadows, a meteorologist writing his recollections on board an arctic research ship in the 1980's of his part in Hitler's downfall. Sent on a Heart of Darkness type of mission by the military to track down an enigmatic and mysterious scientist of value to the war effort, whose allegiances may be uncertain and who the military would like Meadows to persuade to side with their cause, Meadows finds himself in the wilds of Scotland (Kilmun) where Wallace Ryman aka `the Prophet' lives.
The book builds its sense of mystery and tension slowly. Meadows often takes refuge in scientific analysis when he feels the turbulence of uncertainty threaten to unleash the turbulence of his own inner life. There's another Heart of Darkness parallel here. Its central character, Marlowe, takes refuge in `facts' when the chaos of Africa threatens to impinge. And Meadow's inner turbulence also has a strong African connection. Africa is where he spent his childhood. Africa is where, in one of the book's most striking and shocking passages, Meadows saw his parents killed in a mudslide, the external turbulence of natural disaster leading to the inner turbulence of suppressed trauma.
The sense of place in the scenes in Kilmun is admirably invoked; the lowering climate and landscape, details like steel logging chutes descending the hills like children's slides, and the strange juxtaposition of a mighty military machine in this landscape, warships in the loch. Meadows eventual encounter with the Prophet, after a long slow burn, reveals a prototype Richard Dawkins who seeks a wholly rational breakdown of the mysteries of the universe. Ryman seems an enigma though and can't easily be categorised as a rationalist humanist.
The titular turbulence, the unpredictability caused by the clashing and merging of different systems, be they lives, ideas or weather, begins to quicken. Events in Kilmun build to a highly shocking and abrupt tragedy that removes a central character with more than a quarter of the narrative to go. This event is a skilfully written jolt, all the more effective because of the preceding slow burn of tension.
There are thematic parallels with Foden's `Last King of Scotland.' Both feature idealistic and naive young men seeking to make their mark and floundering in the shadows of characters larger than themselves, and the impulsive actions of both lead to unexpected tragedy that marks them for life and ultimately leads to a more redemptive path.
The last quarter of the book is a big gear change and a little frustrating, as the preceding tension has been released, and we start again. This time the narrative focuses on the meteorological preparations for D Day, with the turbulence of conflicting views of meteorologists and the partnership between science and the military. This leads to Meadow's breakthrough as he learns to intuitively apply Ryman's theory to his forecasts, and to his physical presence at the actual D Day landings, which gives us a climactic rush of violence, action and imagery.
The novel weaves big themes of science and faith, uncertainty and the human attempt to reduce it and deal with it, the ethics of the partnership between science and the military, and the turbulence of the inner life including the violent internal weather system of suppressed trauma, in a turbulent mix. It's an intelligent and satisfying read and a fitting additional tribute to the efforts the men and women in science and the military who contributed to the success of the Normandy invasion.