, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: V2, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2020. 312 pp. $29

In late November 1944, the Germans rain V2 rockets on London, killing hundreds of civilians, and destroy thousands of homes at supersonic speed. Once the rockets launch from the Dutch coast, they take mere minutes to cross the North Sea and land with no warning save for a last-second shift in air pressure. By that time, it’s too late to seek shelter. The V2, named for Vergeltung, meaning “retribution” or “payback,” is more terrifying and arbitrary than any weapon previously known.

One morning, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in Britain’s women’s air service (WAAF) discovers this firsthand. Shacking up for the weekend with a high-ranking (and married) Air Ministry official, she’s lucky to survive a rocket attack, as is her lover. That gives her extra motivation, as if she needed any, to return to her work, which involves analyzing aerial photographs of potential launch sites. The RAF has tried many times to take them out but always fail. So the V2s keep coming, seemingly from nowhere, and entire blocks of London keep getting smashed. Kay would like to fight back more effectively — and when word comes of a mission to track them from Belgium, she persuades her lover to have her sent there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rudi Graf, a rocketry expert and longtime colleague of Wernher von Braun, who runs the V2 program, prepares the missiles for launch in the Dutch seaside town of Scheveningen. He has little fear of the RAF, whose raids strike the town, surrounding area, or the seashore, never the launch sites. But he does fear the SS, which has strengthened its grip on every aspect of the war effort and looks over his shoulder constantly, sniffing for disloyalty or its perceived equivalent, lack of patriotic zeal.

Wernher von Braun, center, facing, wearing the Nazi Party lapel pin, talks to Fritz Todt, center, Peenemünde, March 1941. Todt’s slave laborers died by the thousands to build von Braun’s underground rocket works there (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

And indeed, Graf is no zealot. He tries not to think about what the rockets he has developed actually do to London, or what that means. For the most part, he succeeds at putting action and effect in different compartments of his mind. But Braun originally recruited him to investigate the feasibility of space travel, and Graf can’t separate theory from practice or justify one to the other so easily. He wonders what he’s doing there.

The sixth Harris novel I’ve read, V2 feels the weakest. A few trademarks make their appearance, all right — a sure grasp of history, mastery of detail, physical descriptions. Wherever the narrative goes, Harris grounds you in the scene, whether a London street, a ministerial office, a launch site, or a brothel, all delivered with economy. Early on, for instance, you see how the war has completely changed Scheveningen:

Rain was gusting off the sea, funneled down the side streets between the abandoned hotels. The pier had burned down the previous year. Its blackened iron spars protruded above the running white-capped waves like the masts of the shipwreck. The beach was sown with barbed wire and tank traps. Outside the railway station a few tattered tourist posters from before the war showed a pair of elegant women in striped bathing costumes and cloche hats tossing a ball to one another.

However, unlike, say, An Officer and a Spy, The Second Sleep, or Dictator, the author focuses on public stakes almost to the exclusion of his characters, which results in a less thrilling thriller. By that, I mean plot points like a rocket launch or Kay’s analysis efforts provide most of the tension, fairly humdrum, with few “no — and furthermore” moments, because the characters’ inner lives fail to color the events or enlarge them in significance.

I really don’t care whom Kay sleeps with. Despite feminist overtones to the WAAF war contribution, she’s too much a sex object for my taste, and the love affair that gets her a much sought-after assignment feels contrived. On the other hand, I do want to know what about the rockets compels her; saying she wishes to do something important or useful doesn’t suffice. After all, the war affects every aspect of life, and there are many ways to serve.

Graf has a little more to him; you see the scientist trapped into serving weaponry, though it’s a trap he willingly entered. But, unlike the case with other Harris novels, I don’t see his deep passion or resistance. Mostly, he seems tired and wishes he could somehow take action, though in what way, he’s not sure.

If, however, you want to read a fast-moving outline of how the V2 rockets came to exist and how they worked, this book may satisfy you. You also see why Wernher von Braun deserved a war-crimes trial rather than a cushy job in America’s space program. But if you’ve never read a Robert Harris thriller, don’t start with this one.

Disclaimer: I bought my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, which shares its profits with independent bookstores.