Turbulence by Giles Foden
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, but is not a masterpiece. (Proof copy supplied by the publisher).