Now and again you come across a novel so closely published to your own specifications that you strongly suspect the publishers have secretly focus-grouped you to within an inch of your life, and then wiped all memory of it from your mind. For me, Jed Mercurio’s 2007 fascinating debut novel, Ascent, did just that.
This is why: it is well written; it comprises a compelling account of life behind the Iron Curtain; there is Cold War intrigue; it is set in the golden era of pre-missile jet air combat (you’ll just have to go with me on this one); it features the space race.
Lancashire-born former RAF officer Mercurio, now best known as the creator and writer of hit BBC drama Line of Duty, guides us through the fortunes of Yevgeni Yeremin, who literally fights his way out of the nightmare that is his early life in a brutal post-war Soviet orphanage to a place in a Red Air Force training academy and a seat in a Mig-15.
The opening scenes, unsentimental and unsparing, make for tough reading. Yet these early passages are as necessary as they are bleak for, without them, the reader would struggle to understand the obsessional, disciplined and coldly focused nature of the protagonist.
When next we meet Yevgeni it is the early 1950s and he’s a young pilot in the Soviet squadrons that are secretly fighting for the North in the Korean War. Here Mercurio, a former physician and officer in the RAF, is describing a new thing for western readers – while the Soviet contribution to the war in Korea was widely speculated upon, the sheer scale of the campaign was never understood until well after the fall of communism.
The combat scenes are tense and exciting. Like many of his kind, Yevgeni only comes alive when he is doing that which he loves most and in which he finds true freedom: flying. His post-war career in the Red Air Force and subsequent selection for cosmonaut training are suitably soaked in the inequities and ironies of the Soviet State.
The novel is brilliantly conceived, exquisitely written and meticulously researched. Only occasionally does the mist of scientific terminology and military jargon descend to obscurity. But you try writing about something as remote from everyday life as flying a lethal steel tube, at near supersonic speeds, in three dimensions, and see how far your Microsoft thesaurus takes you.
As the book progresses towards the icy blackness and deep solitude of space it seems as if it’s being put through some form of literary wind tunnel. All excess wordage is slowly swept away until we are left with a narrative that alternates between the sparse terms of an equation and a soulful Newtonian prose. The poignant and triumphal ending will have your visor misting over and fracture your heart, even as it sends it soaring unto the heavens.
Urrah Yevgeni. Urrah!