Turbulence by David Szalay
Published by Vintage, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In a series of interconnected short stories, we follow twelve strangers as they cross paths on a succession of journeys from country to country. Though the book claims to show “the ripple effect that, knowingly or otherwise, a person’s actions have on those around them”, I would argue this is not entirely accurate. The interactions between the characters are mostly incidental, and have no bearing on each other’s circumstances or perspective. It’s a shame the book is slightly misrepresented in that sense, as what it actually does is equally as fascinating as that concept sounds.
As we travel across the globe, we are given snapshots of twelve different people’s lives. Each of them is dealing with some kind of, dare I say, turbulence. This includes illness, grief, domestic violence, struggles with their sexuality, and so on. Though each one suffers in silence, feeling disconnected from the world around them, Szalay shows us, quite literally, how universal these struggles are. By having these people unwittingly cross paths in a chain from one to the next, he explores the idea that it’s the human worries seemingly isolating us that unite us above all else.
The prose itself is very readable, but our time spent with each character is so fleeting that there’s no real opportunity for narrative or emotional development. The slice of life approach is certainly effective in reflecting the notion that everyone is fighting their own private battles despite outward appearances, but it does mean there’s a consistent lack of resolution.
Admittedly, the way the book comes full circle and connects the last story to the first is very clever and satisfying. That said, the final story also becomes needlessly heavy handed, when we are told the main character has the following quote framed on their wall: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” If the golden rule of fiction is ‘show, don’t tell’, Szalay misses the mark here by spelling out the theme he’s just spent the duration of the book trying to explore. When you’ve done so as successfully as he did, there’s no need to hit the reader over the head with it in this way.
A solid and thoughtful reading experience, I very much appreciated the book’s concept and effective use of structure as a means of storytelling. Though this underwhelmed slightly due to its want of emotional and thematic nuance, I would certainly read more of the author’s work.
If you’d like to give Turbulence a go, you can pick up a copy with free shipping from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!