By Wendy Smith
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; C04
As demonstrated in his Whitbread Award-winner, "The Last King of Scotland," which rendered Ugandan dictator Idi Amin through the eyes of his personal physician, British author Giles Foden has a knack for strong setups. Foden's new novel has an equally striking premise: In January 1944, a young meteorologist is dispatched to gain the confidence of a scientist whose accurate weather-forecasting could be crucial to choosing a date for D-Day.
The younger man, Henry Meadows, is a Cambridge-educated whiz kid who just might be able to understand the system for measuring turbulence devised by Wallace Ryman, a pacifist who does not wish to share his knowledge with military officials planning the invasion of France. Meadows is also arrogant, insecure and socially maladroit. These qualities aren't exactly pluses on such a delicate assignment, but much of the novel's interest comes from exploring Meadows's damaged psyche, slowly unfolded in his own words as the novel's narrator.
Unfortunately, the plot is not as interesting as this premise. Events crawl as Meadows sets up his cover, taking weather readings from a station near Ryman's home in Scotland. During their uneasy encounters, he displays no great skill at winning the scientist's trust and no great sense of urgency about his mission. D-Day recedes into the background in a lackadaisical narrative studded with dull scientific and meteorological exposition.
The framing device, which presents Meadows's story as recollections set down in 1980, further muddies the narrative waters by yanking readers out of the moment to reveal the future of selected characters. A poker-playing American meteorologist and a scientist obsessed with constructing a ship from ice are among the promising secondary figures who remain frustratingly opaque, viewed through Meadows's self-absorbed lens.
An out-of-the-blue death finally sends the action into higher gear, and some of the novel's better scenes occur after Meadows is assigned to a hapless officer charged with reconciling conflicting meteorological data into a coherent recommendation for the Allied commanders. At least this pressing task gets Meadows out of his self-pitying funk -- until, confronted by an angry relative of a man he accidentally killed, he whines, "Was I never to be free of this event from what already now seemed like another life?" After this repellent outburst, it's difficult to feel much excitement when he plays a key role in using Ryman's system to make the vital call about D-Day.
Foden's talent and commitment are evident in scattered moments, including some lovely passages describing the Scottish landscape and lyrical metaphysical musings about the significance of turbulence. But his synthesis of psychology, philosophy and science within the framework of a wartime mission doesn't come off.
Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.