For some frequent flyers, a chatty seatmate is enough to ruin a flight. You’d rather sleep or read than spend hours conversing with a complete stranger who just happens to be buckled in next to you. David Szalay’s latest book Turbulence (Scribner) might just change that.
In the opening pages, we find ourselves aboard a flight from London to Madrid, occupying the mind of a nervous passenger as she white-knuckles her way through a violent bout of turbulence. She is en route home after visiting her ailing son Jamie. But our time with her doesn’t last long.
Turbulence reveals itself as a compilation of twelve vignettes, centered around twelve flights taken by twelve strangers. It is the anxious woman’s seatmate Cheikh, a wealthy businessman from Dakar, who opens the following vignette. From there, the narrative baton is passed on to a pilot who unknowingly witnessed the moment that changed Cheikh’s life forever. On and on the chapters unfold, like dominoes propelling each other forward, as characters who appeared only fleetingly in the previous story assume the lead role in the next. As readers, we follow these twelve travelers as they traverse the globe by plane, their lives briefly intersecting while in transit.
It’s a unique and intriguing format adopted by David Szalay, whose previous book All That Man Is was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. These short layovers in the lives of a dozen characters prove both entertaining and moving. We land in the middle of these individuals’ lives and enjoy a quick glimpse of their struggles and preoccupations—from extramarital affairs to illness to strained familial relations—before taking off again to our next destination. (The author’s own mobility—he was born in Canada, raised in London, and currently lives in Budapest—is reflected in the book, with portions set in each of those places.)
Every chapter feels like its own short story that would be equally engrossing as a standalone piece, but together they form an even more powerful tapestry. The twelve vignettes provide deep and varied character studies, many exploring fraught family dynamics and other forms of physical and emotional turbulence—those moments of unexpected, jolting, disorienting, and sometimes frightening shifts—that humans experience both in the air and on the ground. The advent of air travel is frequently credited with the “shrinking” of our planet, connecting humans in ways previously unimaginable, and the marvel of planes is on full display in Turbulence, as characters travel seamlessly from São Paulo to Toronto or Seattle to Hong Kong, but this growing ease of travel doesn’t always make it easier to maintain our complicated relationships. Across oceans or within the same household, the characters still contend with life’s turbulent moments and the ensuing effects on their connections with others.
Szalay’s prose is sparse and swift. Though the pages flip by rather quickly, the stories inspire further reflection, as these tales of briefly overlapping lives make you wonder about every seemingly insignificant encounter in your own. We are, of course, the protagonists in our own daily existence, and we may never know the rich textures and complexities of the individuals who touch our lives only tangentially. In Turbulence, we are given the chance to do just that. Unlike the flat secondary characters of other novels, the ostensibly minor characters in Szalay’s book—from a novelist in Toronto to a gardener in Doha—are ultimately given the chance to play the protagonist, and the depths of their fears, desires, and challenges are revealed to us. Each feels more fascinating than the next, making you wonder what stories you might be missing by not turning to your fellow airplane passengers and asking about their lives.
Though many books are praised with the description that they leave you wanting more, this is particularly true of Szalay’s series of stories, since the readers are only given a short period of time with these dozen characters who are each worthy of their own full-length novel. None of the vignettes come to a traditional resolution—indeed, most stories cut off just as their emotional stakes seem to reach their zenith—but the circular nature of the book still offers a satisfying sense of closure by ending where we began, back in Jamie’s London flat. (Though there are some small surprises throughout the book, it’s not one that’s prone to spoilers; its delights are found in its unique form, its realistic and diverse characters, and its insightful, efficient prose, rather than a twisting plot.) We begin our journey as readers alongside Jamie’s mother, then fly across countries and continents, until concluding with Jamie’s daughter, which also feels like a kind of gratifying progress, like the circle of life in motion. And though we don’t know what will become of any of our traveling protagonists, the intertwining of their lives provides a sense of comfort that we, too, are all connected.
Turbulence is available July 16.
About David Szalay
David Szalay is the author of four previous works of fiction: Spring, The Innocent, London and the South-East, for which he was awarded the Betty Trask and Geoffrey Faber Memorial prizes, and All That Man Is, for which he was awarded the Gordon Burn prize and Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Born in Canada, he grew up in London, and now lives in Budapest.