David Szalay

Jonathan Cape, £9.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

In Turbulence, the miracle of air travel collapses physical distances between people, but also highlights how difficult it can be for them to connect with one another. David Szalay has used a similar structure for this book to that of his earlier All That Man Is, winner of the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize and only just beaten by Paul Beatty to that year’s Man Booker Prize. Echoing Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde, it’s a sequence of vignettes in which a supporting character from one segment becomes the focus of the next, and so on, until we finally arrive back where we started – in this case, Notting Hill.

Each of these linked stories begins with a flight on an aeroplane, either a journey home or an arrival in a new country. Rather than a title, each section is given the codes of the international airports of the passenger’s departure and arrival. And the turbulence alluded to in the title isn’t just the kind faced by the aviophobic old lady at the beginning. Szalay’s characters are all dealing with pivotal moments in relationships.

This is simultaneously a short story collection and a novel, so some mental adjustment is required until you get the hang of it. In “MAD—DSS” (Madrid to Dakar), a businessman returns home to Senegal and can tell from his chauffeur’s manner that something terrible has occurred in his absence. In the next story, we find out what that was, from a new character’s perspective, but have to accept the fact that we will not return to the businessman again, never find out how he reacted or how he will cope. In this book, we are travellers who can only move forward and never look back.

It’s tantalising and frustrating, because each slim vignette hints at a bigger story, like teasers for a blockbuster we will never get to read in which all these threads are somehow drawn together. And with twelve of these stories packed into 136 pages, each one stripped down to a minimum of scene-setting and backstory, the farewells come painfully frequently.

Szalay has given us some brilliantly rendered slices of life to enjoy: sibling resentment coming to a head on a Vietnamese golf course; a Canadian author who fears she’s letting herself and her daughter down with her reaction to a new-born grandchild; a pilot confiding in his captain what it felt like to lose his sister; a young woman returning to London to see her father, who is in remission from cancer and searching for a way to re-establish his bond with her. The meaning of each story is subtly altered by the one that follows, which in turn sets up expectations for the next.

Shot through with moments where communication breaks down and the sense of one’s separateness sets in, these individual scenes nevertheless form a coherent whole, and there’s barely a story here which isn’t in some way engaging and absorbing, the author’s compassion and involvement with his characters shining through even in their times of deepest isolation.