Turbulence, By Giles Foden

The last prophet of Scotland
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By 1944, legendary scientist Wallace Ryman has retired to the seclusion of Kilmun, a coastal hamlet north of Glasgow, where locals fondly refer to him as "the Prophet" for his canny weather divination.

Callow maths prodigy Henry Meadows is dispatched from the Meteorological Office to set up a weather station on Ryman's doorstep, with the brief of befriending him. Charged by the government with providing accurate forecasting for the Normandy landings, the Met desperately needs to understand "the Ryman number", his complex equation by which the turbulence of weather systems can be measured. Yet the old Quaker shows little interest in sharing his theory.

Besides a little low-grade flirting and a grimly comic accident with exploding weather balloons, the Scotland sortie is desperate and dour. Meadows experiences his own turbulence, caused by a growing sense of failure, which Foden's novel sketches with a light touch; but his stolid personality gives little purchase for the reader's interest. Meadows' baffled ponderings on turbulence remain for too long just that: congested theorising.

Since The Last King of Scotland, his superb debut set in Idi Amin's Uganda, Foden has been mining a rich seam on the margins of military history. Ladysmith drew on the Boer War; Zanzibar was a serviceable thriller based on the 1998 US embassy bombings, while Mimi and Toutou go Forth re-imagined the eccentric portage of speedboats through the Congo to capture German-patrolled Lake Tanganyika.

Turbulence sustains the eclectic military interest, but is Foden's first book not set primarily in his native Africa. The result lacks the vitality of his previous work. Like Meadows' fond memories of his Nyasaland childhood, there is something in Foden's prose that yearns for African space and light instead of the austere wartime climate. Foden gives himself scant room for manoeuvre between the mathematics and Meadows' earthbound personality. He has bright weather behind him, though, and more sun will surely follow this overcast spell.