V2, by Robert Harris, published by Hutchinson autumn 2020
In the autumn and winter of 1944, the dying embers of the Nazi war effort were fanned back to a brief fierce flame by the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei campaign – known to us as the V2 rockets.
Dr Rudi Graf, a dedicated engineer who still dreams of reaching the stars with his beautiful rockets, is the fictional colleague of Wernher von Braun. (After the war von Braun famously re-surfaced in America as the genius behind NASA’s space programme.) Graf’s opening line, ‘I doubt it’ when asked whether the rockets will win the war, tells us immediately of his utter weariness and and his growing doubts about Nazism, the war effort, and his own life’s work on the rocket programme.
Harris’s other main character is WAAF Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack in London. Escaping a moribund love affair, she finds her life transformed when she volunteers to go to Belgium as part of a group of talented female mathematicians who use slide rules, nerve and sheer ability in a race to find the launch site of the deadly rockets.
Before the two eventually meet, the gripping course of the final winter of WW11 has somehow to be survived. And a muddy, grim, despairing time it is before the climactic end is reached.
And now I must declare making a big mistake, and being most unfair to Mr Harris:
I read Fatherland, Harris’s first novel (which was also set in Nazi Germany but of a very different era) so many years ago I blush at how old I have become. I was immediately hooked on the premise of that book – that the Nazis had won the war, prevailed through to the sixties, and a doddery Hitler was ruler of the whole of Europe including a Vichy-type regime in Britain. I was even more captivated by the quality of the writing.
What Harris did with Fatherland. and has done since in most of his writing, is to focus on carefully crafted distinctive characters and a wealth of painstaking research distilled down to the most delicately constructed detail. And then he twists events to utterly fool us. While we were watching the brilliantly crafted “this” over here, Harris has all along been fooling us with a hidden “that” over there, which explodes into view in the final twist. Oh, for such talent!
One or two other thriller writers can do this, but few choose to do so to investigate epochal moments of history to such gripping effect. The magic is in the detail, and this was where I made my mistake. I had been so looking forward to V2 that I pre-ordered it on Kindle, and when it downloaded on publication day I gobbled it down much too fast, consuming the book in a single marathon session ending in the wee small hours.
This is not the way to treat a much-anticipated new book, as those of us no longer small children usually recognise. Unsurprisingly, having rushed through what may seem at first glance a simple story, I was a little disappointed. It felt a touch superficial, rather short, not really up to par. I knew Harris had written the book in lockdown, having fortunately conducted his field research in autumn 2019. Perhaps, I reasoned, he felt under pressure to deliver, or the restrictions of lockdown were taking their toll.
Fortunately for me, I then chose to listen to the book on Audible, and had a vastly different experience. All the touches of detail – Harris’s unique magic with deftly deployed historical research – somehow emerged far more effectively in the audio format. By the time I reached the denouement, much more satisfactory second time round, I had changed my opinion considerably.
Kay’s chagrin at her shifting personal life, including her mistakes of the heart and initial difficulties with colleagues, came out in beautiful nuance. Graf’s lonely stance, a thwarted dreamer reaching for the stars who is forced to kowtow to evil, was much clearer, and his behaviour at the climatic twist became believable and poignant. The backdrop of the dreary frozen Low Countries, and the war-shattered scenes of exhausted London were almost characters in their own right.
My view now? This is a terrific historical thriller, once taken at the correct pace. I thoroughly recommend it and heartily apologise to Robert Harris for my initial misgivings.
But, dear Reader, I must caution you – read V2 twice to get the most out of this story. It creeps up on you.
An update now on progress with my own first historical mystery novel, Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl
My first draft has just come back from my editor Gemma Taylor, and I‘ve also had feedback on the script from several beta readers. My grateful thanks to my readers – signed copies coming your way sometime next year!
Mostly positive reviews so far, I’m relieved to say. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but I’m on timetable to finish the second draft and polish it up to send out on pitch to agents and publishers in the New Year.
In the meantime, I’ve made a start on the second book of the series, Governor’s Man: The Carnelian Phoenix. Get ready for all kinds of mayhem, murder, subterfuge, and misunderstandings as my trio racket around third century Europe in a quest to uncover the truth behind the suicide of Senator Valerius.