In the opening pages of Turbulence, a woman in her seventies, who is visiting her sick son in Notting Hill, thinks how easy ‘it was, these days, to acquire a plane ticket’. Instead of a ticket to take us around the world, we have David Szalay’s novel, which takes us across continents in a series of 12 connected stories. The chapter headings are the acronyms of international airports; thus the first chapter is LGW-MAD and the last BUD-LGW. Each episode arises from a personal connection to a character in the previous one. Szalay might have been conscious of Forster’s dictum: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion.’
He is a clever craftsman. Named in 2013 one of Granta’s 20 best young novelists and with his All That Man Is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he innovates in this ingenious new book. The turbulence of the title which affects the flight of the old woman who returns to Madrid — it ‘ended all illusion of security’ — is reflected in the upsets in the lives of all the other characters. The woman falls ill, and is treated on the plane by a doctor, who in the next chapter flies on to Dakar and is immediately caught up in the disturbing affairs of his own family. And so it goes on, from one connection to the next.
Perhaps Szalay is playing with the idea of six degrees of separation. On the first page we are told that a sick man’s doctor had said that ‘they would now wait a month and then do some scans to see if his treatment had been successful’. In the last chapter that time has arrived, and his daughter travels to be with him for the scans. The circle is complete. The chain of relationships has led back to the beginning.
Szalay has said that he is happiest writing the contemporary novel; the context of his preferred writing is ‘my world’. He knows about people: the closeted gay who is violent to his wife; the woman whose husband accepts her infidelity (he ‘recognises her autonomy as an individual and she despised him for it’); and the mother whose ‘liberal bona fides’ are boosted by her daughter’s fiancé being a Syrian refugee. Stark and spare, Turbulence is an impressive novel.