Turbulence in Life and Fiction
Turbulence by David Szalay is a slight book but one I think should be in every travellers carry on bag. I took it with me on a plane trip recently and read it in one sitting, and still had time for a nap.
We travel on 12 airplanes from London to Madrid, to Dakar, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Seattle, Hong Kong, Saigon, Kasane, Delhi, Kochi, Doha, Budapest, and London once again. Each chapter features a character who is travelling from one place to another, going away from home, or coming home, travelling for pleasure or business, to see family, to celebrate or to grieve.
The first person we meet is a woman who has been in London, England visiting her son who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She is leaving to return to her home in Spain. She would have preferred to take the train, as she fears flying, but her son has booked her flight and off she goes. When the flight experiences turbulence “it was when that first wobble went through the plane. 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.” And this sets the tone for the novel. Each character, on each flight, experiences some sort of turbulence in their life and it is shared with the reader. Some more serious than others, but all are of significance to the individual.
Toward the end of the book, in the final vignette, we are in London again, with a young woman who knows her father is close to death. In his flat “There was a Kennedy quote framed on the wall next to light switch. 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.”
Immediately after reading Turbulence I picked up the most recent book by Alexandra Fuller, Travel Light, Move Fast. Alexandra Fuller has lived a life of turbulence since the day she was born. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was her brilliantly told first book, published in 2001, and she has continued to tell us her story in several books since then – all of them wonderful. This time Alexandra has flown to Budapest “the poor man’s Paris” where her parents were on holiday when he father becomes fatally ill. Nicola and Tim Fuller, Alexandra’s parents, had lived in Rhodesia and southern Africa all of their adult lives. They are all now so completely out of place in Budapest.
Nicola is both capable and completely incompetent – a high functioning alcoholic – a supremely intelligent woman, commenting on the book found her husband’s bedside table, an Ian Fleming. “At least he went out with a good James Bond. You wouldn’t want the last book you read to be absolute drivel, would you?”
Returning home in Africa, with her mother and her father’s body, Nicola takes comfort in the old Atlas, with the old names for countries in Africa. Tim had loved them for the “promise of spaces still filled with wilderness …for the possibility of land without roads.” Tim and Nicola lived a life of adventure, and one of huge loss, of children and property, never giving up their optimistic view of the world and their own belief that things would somehow be just fine. Nicola raised her children by benign neglect – and sometimes not so benign – “The sensible child-rearing books I read insisted children be allowed to foster a robust sense of independence”.
Tim and Nicola, Nicola and Tim, inseparable until his death. “They’d leaned into each other’s strengths, shored up one another’s weaknesses: delighted in each other’s foibles; tolerated each other’s addictions; respected one another’s opinions”. Nicola is lost without Tim. “With Dad at the helm, our family of four had mettle….we’d emerged one way or the other, we bloody Fullers”. The three Fullers left behind are indeed rudderless.
Travel Light, Move Fast is an examination of the lives the Fullers lived in Africa, and Alexandra’s life there and in America. Alexandra writes, “Vanessa and I ….were the murderous, murdered Orphans of the Empire, the stubborn remnants of a briefly glutted people; we were the half-life of our white supremacist violence, the aftershock of colonialism. We belonged nowhere here; we belonged nowhere else”.
The book ends with Alexandra’s return to the United States where a shocking personal tragedy takes place. She thinks of her father. “Hold on Chookies,” Dad would have said, my life in tatters and tears. “It’ll be all right in the end.” Of course, it won’t be “all right” but it will not be the end.