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V2: A Novel of World War II


V2: A Novel of World War II

In reading V2, at one point I was reminded of the classic Chuck Jones “Road Runner” cartoons, which feature a brilliant but inept coyote who uses various stratagems and devices (which of course always backfire) to dispatch a blameless bird. V2 is not quite like that; it involves two people who are trying to kill each other at long range, with neither of them knowing that the other even exists. One is a German engineer at a missile base in Holland, lobbing “buzz bombs” in the general direction of England; the other is a WAAF reconnaissance expert in Buckinghamshire, trying to direct RAF bombing raids to prevent future missile attacks.

Both are using the tools they have at hand. The German uses a primitive long-range guided ballistic missile, for which the lack of accuracy is, as we would say today, a feature and not a bug. The V in V2 stands for vengeance; it was meant by the Wehrmacht to be a retaliation for Allied bombing raids on civilian targets. Although the German engineer takes pains to target the missile on the center of London, the results are utterly unpredictable. Robert Harris begins his novel with two actual V2 attacks on London, both of which almost --- but not quite --- land on top of his British protagonist.

"The history is presented accurately and fairly, the emotions of the characters are on point, and the technical details are interesting but don’t swat the reader over the head the way that modern technothrillers tend to do."

Just as the German engineer does, the WAAF analyst uses the tools at hand to locate the German bases and to direct air raids on their suspected positions. The first of these is photo-reconnaissance; RAF pilots dropped their planes below the cloud cover to take pictures of German bases, which were then analyzed and turned into targeting tools. But the German V2 bases in Holland were expertly camouflaged, hidden under the cover of trees. What the British did to counter this --- and what inspired Harris to write V2 --- was to assign a squad of WAAF officers with mathematical skills in a recently recaptured Belgian town. Once they were given the inputs regarding the launch angle of the rockets, and the precise location of the target in England, they could then --- at least in theory --- work backwards to calculate the location of the rocket launch.

Both what the Germans were trying to do and what the British were trying to do to counter them would be made efficient, if not necessarily easy, by 21st-century technology. A computer chip in the nose of the rocket could utilize global positioning signals to direct its route to whatever target you would like. Similarly, a satellite could pinpoint the location of a launch site --- even providing a video feed of the launch itself --- leading to the obliteration of the launch site in turn. The key thing to remember here is that the 21st-century technology is based on the ability to send satellites into space, and one reason America has that capacity is because of Wernher von Braun, who appears in V2 as a minor character.

The author of the historical novel has an initial choice to make. Are his primary characters going to be identifiable historical characters, or are they going to be fictional characters appearing in the historical context? To use Harris’ trilogy of novels about Cicero as an example, the main character is, of course, Cicero, but the narrator is fictional --- or rather, a fictionalized version of one of Cicero’s real slaves, about whom we know next to nothing except that he initialized the use of the ampersand. Here, Harris uses two fictional characters, which is probably the right choice.

But the inherent challenge in simultaneously telling the V2 story from both the British and German sides is that the author must get the reader to have at least a little sympathy for the German character --- and if you humanize the German character, so must you humanize the British character. Unfortunately, this is the part of the book that doesn’t work quite as well. The WAAF analyst is bland, competent and long-suffering in the classic stiff-upper-lip style. The German engineer is earnest, conflicted and grieving a recent loss, and thoroughly disgusted with the war and its suffering. But you can’t let the German character off the hook for the outrages of the Nazi regime, and Harris balances what sympathy the reader might have for the engineer with his complicity with the slave labor used to build the V2 bases.

What I think Harris might be doing here, in pitting these two unmemorable characters against each other, and having them attack each other at long distance by proxy, is saying something about the impersonal nature of modern war. It is not at all like war as described by Thomas Hardy in “The Man He Killed,” in which the protagonist shoots his would-be friend-turned-enemy in the face at short range. There’s nothing “quaint and curious” about a V2 attack, or a Lancaster bombing raid --- and still less a Hellfire drone guided by a GPS system.

There is a lot to like about V2. The history is presented accurately and fairly, the emotions of the characters are on point, and the technical details are interesting but don’t swat the reader over the head the way that modern technothrillers tend to do. But the best historical novels have the characters drive the history; here, though, it is the history that drives the characters. V2 is more than worth it for the history --- particularly the hidden history of the WAAF --- but Harris can’t bring the characters up to that high standard.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on November 20, 2020

V2: A Novel of World War II
by Robert Harris