Approaching D-Day in turbulent times

2009-08-12 00:00

WORLD War 2 has become a rich seam for writers to mine — not just the fighting, but the peripheral events. We’ve had the code breaking, the Manhattan Project and the Blitz, and now Giles Foden (The Last King of Scotland) has turned his attention to the weather, specifically the weather forecasting before the D-Day landings.

Before the days of satellites that can track weather systems, it was all much more complicated. Predictions beyond two days were almost impossible. And the stakes were enormously high.

Foden has taken the subject to construct a clever novel. His protagonist is Henry Meadows, a nerd (before the term was invented) from the Met Office who is sent off to Scotland to try to persuade Walter Ryman, an elderly Quaker pacifist boffin, to divulge the mysterious forecasting system he has invented. I must confess that some of the maths and science Ryman and Meadows talk about lost me quite quickly, but it didn’t seem to matter much.

The first half of the book moves at a gentle pace. Meadows tiptoes around Ryman, trying to get him to help the war effort against his better judgement. Ryman and his wife, on the other hand, have their own, rather curious plans to use Meadows for a rather different effort of their own. And the endeavours in Scotland come to a bizarrely gruesome climax.

Then the pace of the novel steps up a gear. D-Day is approaching, and Meadows returns to England and the front line of forecasting. It is a multi-national and bad-tempered task: the stakes are enormous and the pressure from the generals is extreme. The lives of a large body of troops depend on accuracy.

We all know the outcome, but Foden manages to ratchet up the tension and make the build up to D-Day genuinely exciting.

Turbulence is not by any means a gung-ho, wartime thriller. It is by turns subtle, uncomfortable and exciting as it plays with the reader. The fictional part is often surprising; the known is made dramatic.

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