Hutchinson | 2020 (17 September) | 312p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book
It is November 1944 and V2 rockets rain down on London. They arrive silently, no-one knows where they will hit but when they do the devastation is sudden, terrifying and deadly. Germany is in retreat but now every resource they have, whether slave or fuel, is being put into the production of these rockets, which are then launched from moving sites in occupied Holland on the cities of London and Antwerp. Rudi Graf is a leading German rocket engineer. His dream had been to design and propel rockets to the Moon but his research was hijacked when Hitler came to power. Now he launches rockets to kill civilians, urged on by his Nazi commanders and propagandists. In this cold, bleak seaside town, Rudi becomes increasingly disillusioned.
Kay Calton-Walsh is a young intelligence officer in the WAAF. It is her job to try and detect launch sites from aerial photographs. She’s good at her job and she has also experienced herself the horrors of a V2 strike. When she gets the chance to do even more for the war effort she leaps at it. She joins a team of WAAFs in Belgium. Their task is to observe launches and calculate their origin. The mathematics is difficult, incredibly pressured and the equations must be done quickly. It’s impossible to forget that behind the numbers, lives are at stake and that every second counts.
Robert Harris is one of my very favourite authors. His books vary enormously – ancient Rome, the Vatican conclave, World War 2, an alternate future, 19th century France, and so on – but they are all expertly constructed, ingenious thrillers. The tension and drama can be found in strangely quiet moments, within enormously intelligent individuals who must face a significant challenge, whether that’s an engineer trying to predict the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii or a civil servant’s attempts to broker his own deal at Munich in 1939. These are places with secrets, where much can be underhand, and the stakes are enormous. In Rudi Graf we have another of these figures and he is a fascinating man who has an uneasy relationship with the rocket that he has created as well as with the people around him. He is very alone.
This is a novel in which one side faces off against another, where every act has a consequence. There are some fantastic, coldly horrifying sequences in which we follow a rocket through those four minutes from launch to target. The author takes us outside of the story to tell us how many people each rocket injures and kills. The facts are engrossing but they’re made real by the experiences of Kay Calton-Walsh. She is a busy young woman, liberated by war into being useful, with a role that peace would deny her. She also loves unwisely. But her focus is on stopping these rockets. I loved the chapters set in Belgium. How strange it must have been for the locals to have one army replaced by another in their town. There is tension in the novel from the rockets but it also comes from the relationship between the WAAFs and the local villagers.
V2 is a relatively short novel and we’re told it was written quickly through lockdown. It does have the feel of a novel written with urgency. It is true I would have liked it to have been longer. I would have liked more but what there is, is fantastic. The characterisation is spot on and the locations are richly evoked, especially the launch sites, which were lethal, manned by expendable, tired men, driven on by absurd targets who often became the victims of their own rockets. I’m fascinated by this subject – my grandfather went behind enemy lines to spy on V2 rocket production – and Robert Harris is the perfect writer to convey the dread and terror of these weapons while also respecting the science behind them. It’s an extremely tense thriller – rockets are launched time after time, day after day. They must be stopped.
I can’t wait for the next Robert Harris novel. It could be about anything. It might surprise me as much as The Second Sleep did. Whatever it is, I know I’ll be enthralled. His novel Pompeii remains my favourite historical novel. If you haven’t read it, read it!