V2 by Robert Harris review – fears of a rocket man

The Nazis’ V2 rocket programme is seen through the eyes of a conflicted German and a female air force office in a familiar but absorbing thriller

As the second world war hurtled towards its climax, the Nazis summoned up a final, futile burst of creative energy and channelled it into a rocket, the V2, which gives its name to Robert Harris’s 14th novel. Harris, in a narrative that is characteristically propulsive, tells the story of the V2 through twin perspectives – Dr Rudi Graf, a (fictional) friend and longtime collaborator of Wernher von Braun, real-life head of the Nazi rocket programme, and (the fictional) Kay Caton-Walsh of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Kay works first in England, then at Mechelen in Belgium, analysing photographs through which she hopes to reveal the location of a secret V2 launch site, deep within the woods outside the Dutch resort of Scheveningen. Kay’s character feels strangely underdeveloped – the doughty SOE type who shows the men a thing or two has become a staple of the second world war literary landscape and it would have been nice to see Harris give her some edges.

Graf is a more complex character. He only ever wanted to send a rocket to the moon; he was a teenage member of the Society for Space Travel and a Fritz Lang obsessive. Now his childhood dream has been harnessed to the Nazi death machine. His conflicted state as the end of the war draws ever nearer is presented with subtlety and sensitivity – this is what Harris does best, the decent man caught in the jaws of history.

Harris’s career to date has been pleasingly unpredictable, moving between the ancient world and the 20th century, from politics to high finance. It’s peculiar, then, that so much of V2 feels familiar. He wrote it during the lockdown and yet no sense of this feeds through to the reader. Living through historical times, our historical novels have to work harder to justify their existence. Harris’s books are always supremely readable – he has practically trademarked the term “master storyteller” – but V2 doesn’t tell us enough about the way we live now.

V2 by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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