Turbulence by Giles Foden: Book Review

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I received an uncorrected proof of Turbulence from the publishers Faber and Faber through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. I should have found it boring because most of the characters are scientists – meteorologists, to be precise – and a lot of the dialogue is scientific concerning the theory of weather forecasting and mathematical forecasting in particular. Maths is not my strong subject and a lot of this was beyond me. There was just too much detailed information. Yet, strangely this book gripped me and once I’d got through the first chapter, which was very technical and odd, about making a ship out of ice to transport water to Saudia Arabia, it was compelling reading.

The main action takes place during 1944 in the run up to D-Day. The narrator is Henry Meadows a young meteorologist working for the Met Office. He is sent up to Scotland to find out about the “Ryman number”  from Wallace Ryman, a pacifist and former meteorologist who devised the formula that will make forecasting the weather over a longer period more accurate. This is just what the Allies need to know in preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Ryman is based on Lewis Fry Richardson, who devised the Richardson number, which enables the turbulence of different weather systems to be measured (hence the title of the book). I don’t have a clear picture from the novel of what this actually is or how it works, but it was his work in forecasting a  break in the bad weather conditions in the Channel that fixed the date of D-Day as 6 June 1944.

Ryman is the most interesting character in the  book. He is opposed to war, now  pursuing peace studies and is known as a difficult, stubborn character. Henry finds him awkward, uncooperative and reluctant to talk about his work at first. The book began to come to life for me in this section when Henry and Ryman and his wife Gill start to get to know each other, made more interesting by the tensions in the Rymans’ marriage. At this stage Henry’s own fragility becomes obvious from passages where he recalls his childhood in Africa and the death of his parents.

The action moved back to London and began to drag a little, but picked up as Henry became more involved in the disagreements between the meteorologists from different countries, brought together over the phone to pool their resources about methods and interpretation. Henry is assigned to go with the invasion forces as Met liaison between the British and Americans. This provides a dramatic ending to the book as he is injured on landing in France.

Turbulence is a combination of theoretical and scientific information, philosophical musings (which were more meaningful to me), and a portrayal of complex and emotional characters. In the end I thought it was well worth the effort of reading it.

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