Even though the interview went rather poorly, the Schneider family employs the narrator as a tutor for their four children. The two boys cope with school quite well, but the oldest daughter Elzira struggles and needs support. The children do not go to an ordinary school, just like the family is not the ordinary Antwerp family. They are Orthodox Jews and with her tutoring job, the doors to a completely new world open for the young student. Gradually, she does not actually become a member of the family but they grow totally fond of her and even when the kids have grown up, they not only stay in contact but support each when they are in need.
The Flemish journalist and novelist Margot Vanderstraeten narrates her encounter with the Jewish community at the beginning of the 1990s when she was a student. She is quite young, only a couple of years the children’s senior when she first enters their life and thus can only wonder about what she sees and learns about the family’s faith, the different types of Judaism and a life in her hometown of which she did not have the least idea.
She is confronted with a lot of contradictions and unbelievable concepts, however, she also learns that they can provide anchors in life and give orientation in the modern world. Over the years, she also understands why some Jews prefer to keep to themselves and why all of them always have a passport at hand. At times funny, at times pensive – the novel gives insight in an unknown world without judging any way of life or religion. It is a wonderful memoir which first of all shows how people can bond even though, at first, they could hardly differ more. By showing Jews not only in Belgium but also in Israel and the USA, she also underlines that all of them find their very own way of interpreting their religion and of uniting an old faith based on ancient rules with the modern world.
After having been hit by a German V2 and her affair with a high rank staff member of the ministry almost exposed, Kay Caton-Walsh, officer in the WAAF, asks to be transferred to directly contribute to the fight against the new super weapon of the enemy. Her wish is granted and so she finds herself with dozen of women in Mechelen, Belgium, where they are trained to calculate the origin of the rockets. These are launched from the Netherlands under the surveillance of Dr Rudi Graf who once dreamt of sending rockets into space and was fascinated by his and his friend Wernher von Braun’s advances in science. But since the Nazis have taken over their skills and inventions, he not only feels increasingly uncomfortable but serious questions what he has done.
Altogether, the V2 killed more than 4,000 people, wounded more than 10,000 in London and Antwerp and destroyed thousands of houses in the British capital. Robert Harris has again chosen a historical topic for his novel which outlines the human character in a complicated world. One might expect the Second World War and the Nazi regime to become finally a bit boring, Harris, however, just as in other books before, turns it into a suspenseful story with interesting characters entangled in the contradictions of their time.
The author addresses several core questions while the novel is fast paced and gripping from the start. The German engineer who never intended his creations to be used to kill people but was fascinated by space travel and what by diligence and an inventive talent could be created. Seeing what has become of his dream, he has to make a lonely decision and to come to terms with his role in the war.
On the other hand, Kay is full of patriotism and ready to risk a lot to participate in the fight against the evil, terrorising missile. Quite astonishingly, it is a group of women who do the complicated calculations when mathematics were considered the supreme discipline of men. Yet, their competences do not hinder their male colleague from looking down on them. She is also the one in contact with the local population who is torn between the fronts and after years of occupation not sure whom to trust anymore.
Even though the whole plot is centred around the missile, it is the human aspects which render it interesting and thought provoking. Just as in his other novels, a brilliant combination of fact and fiction which is a terrific read and informative, too.