Ascent begins with the biggest of ‘what ifs’—What if the USSR succeeded in putting a man on the moon ahead of the Americans but never told anyone about it? A premise so implausible that it doesn’t seem possible that Jed Mercurio (or anyone else) would pull it off. Curiously, however, Ascent soars.
With skill in mathematics and a willingness to drown his competitor in raw sewage, the boy Yefgenii Yeremin is chosen for training as a fighter pilot in post war Russia. A few years later over Korea, Yefgenii becomes the ‘ace of aces’. Because the USSR wasn’t officially involved in this war, however, heroes like Yefgenii could not be acknowledged. In one operation he foolishly risks capture by UN forces and is disgraced, exiled to a frigid Arctic base where he expects to live out the rest of his days. After an act of bravery thrillingly cinematic, Yefgenii is again plucked from obscurity and invited to become a cosmonaut in the Soviet’s space race against the Americans. When engineers lament that the Americans have more money, more industry, better vehicles, Yefgenii throws back that the Americans spent millions designing a pen that worked in space while the Soviets used pencils. This idea serves as a battle cry, and the race is on.
Through all the riveting excitement, Ascent is also a story of unsung heroism. The idea of obscurity pervades the narrative. Yefgenii’s wife and children remain nameless. Soviet heroes toil in secret. Failure is buried, taking underground all previous successes. Lives are ruthlessly eclipsed.
Mercurio’s taut language perfectly captures Yefgenii’s silent, unrelenting determination. He presents technical scenes in training-manual prose that cunningly balances other passages of transcendent poetry. This is the best kind of writing.
Against all odds, an exciting tale sparely and beautifully told.
Ascent, Jed Mercurio, Random House.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2007.