I am a real sucker for a book of linked stories so Turbulence by David Szalay sounded right up my street. The novel, if it even is that, is structured as 12 linked stories, each of them presenting a brief view into the life of a solitary air traveller. As the characters brush past one another – sometimes at close range, other times fleetingly – their tales overlap and the narrative is passed, like a baton, from each to the next.
Each section appears at first to be a deceptively short and simple glimpse into someone else’s life. The book begins on a flight from London to Madrid. An elderly woman has been in London to care for her cancer-stricken middle-aged son and she’s scared of flying.
What she hated about even mild turbulence was the way it ended the illusion of security, the way that it made it impossible to pretend that she was somewhere safe.
She gets chatting to the man in the seat beside her and after the flight he (and we) heads to Dakar, where he will meet with tragic news. On the narrative travels, from Toronto to Saigon, Budapest to Sao Paulo, before coming full circle around the globe and ending back in London with the sick man who was visited by his mother.
The narrative always comes at moments of pain or crisis. There is bankruptcy, violence and tragedy all played out in small vignettes, which weave together to suggest that for all the distance between people – in terms of place and economy – we are more alike than we can know. Here is a tapestry of lives that are at once particular and specific, yet also symbolic of human nature as a whole.
The fate of these people can be summed up by a quote from Kennedy, which one character has framed in his bathroom:
‘For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal’
Szalay has a real gift for empathy and these are compassionate stories told with an eye to the shared humanity in us all, what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the parish and the universe’. He suggests that no matter the pain, you are not alone and he navigates this without resorting to gimmick. These characters might be able to collapse the distance between different countries through air travel, but they cannot bridge the gap when trying to communicate their own pain.
If there is anything to criticise here, it is the very brevity that allows the book as a whole to work. At times the vignettes are frustratingly short and the characters are not given time to breath and develop as they maybe could. But it’s a small quibble and what Turbulence lacks in characterisation, it more than makes up for in structure and theme.
Turbulence is a thoughtful book that depicts the fluidity and complexity of human life and explores those moments that happen and after which nothing is ever the same again.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!