Books & Literature

Book Review: V2, by Robert Harris

WAR: In WWII, Rudi Graf helps create the world’s most sophisticated weapon: the V2 ballistic missile.

A psychological trip from a grand master.
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Robert Harris is well known to devotees of military fiction. Harris’ first novel Fatherland was an instant hit, and his subsequent novels earned him a legion of devoted fans. Harris has not dabbled much in the military fiction genre since, preferring instead to explore such esoteric subjects as the eruption of Pompeii and the future history of Britain. Enigma, a thriller based within the British codebreaking centre Bletchley Park, was the closest he came to re-treading the ground of Fatherland for many years until the arrival of his latest work, V2.

As the title suggests the book centres around the V2 rocket, developed by Werner von Braun and our protagonist Rudi Graf. Graf, a deeply disillusioned man, is the technical expert at the German V2 firing sites in Holland from where the rockets (with their tonne warheads) are fired upon a helpless London.

In London, Kay Caton Walsh, a Section Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, is almost killed by not one but two of Graf’s V2s in a single day. Jolted into action after a war spent reviewing reconnaissance photographs, Kay decides to travel to newly-liberated Belgium as part of a team to predict launch site locations through the mathematical determination of flight paths.

V2 is not so much a novel as it is a pair of intertwined character studies. Graf is an idealist, introduced to rocketry by Werner von Braun, who has watched his dream of sending rockets to the moon smashed by the war. In a similar way, Kay decides to immerse herself in the war for the first time, only to discover it is banal and horrific.

The point/counterpoint narrative is the book’s great strength. Harris shows us the cruelty and senselessness of war through the twin lenses of Graf and Kay. Kay sees Graf’s V2s kill civilians whose only crime was queuing for rationed saucepans at Woolworths. Graf sees his lover killed in an air raid on Peenemunde, in which the British deliberately target the slave quarters to deprive the Nazi’s of their workforce. Graf and Kay become the consciences of their respective sides. Graf attempts to pass information on to the resistance, believing his actions to be just. Kay informs on a traitor in Belgium, only to discover the truth is not so cut and dried.

There is little heroism or pleasure shown on either side as Kay and Graf are revealed to be simply cogs in machines that, for all their claimed differences in ideology, are remarkably similar.

It is intriguing to consider what the novel would have looked like if it were set in the universe of Harris’ Fatherland. That novel had the Allies knocked back into the sea at D-day. What would Graf’s state of mind have been if he were in occupied France with Germany triumphant, using his missiles to effect a British ceasefire, and looking forward to returning to Peenemunde and the return of the dreams of his beloved Frau Im Monde? Would Kay have remained so patriotic were the V2s raining on London with no hope of reprieve? We may never know the answers to these questions but the fact that Harris has written such detailed, realistic characters that make these questions spring to mind, is a great credit to him.

Reviewed by DC White

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: September 2020
RRP: $32.99

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