Red Joan was inspired by the case of Melita Norwood – ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op’ – exposed in 1999 as the longest-serving Soviet spy in Britain when an 87-year-old great-grandmother.
Like Norwood, Joan Stanley receives a knock on the door when she is in her eighties, ‘ … loud and staccato; official-sounding …’ And then the life she has so quietly lived and so carefully guarded – ‘so close to the end’ – unravels when she opens the door to those inevitable officials.
With five days of interrogation before her name is announced in parliament and to the media, Jennie Rooney’s narrative nimbly weaves the interviews of the present with Joan’s private memories of the past.
The daughter of a headmaster, Joan leaves home for Newnham College, Cambridge in 1937 at the age of eighteen to read Natural Sciences, specialising in Physics. At the behest of her mother, she arrives with a meticulously planned ‘University Trousseau’. She is bright but naïve. Soon, Joan falls under the spell of the rather glamorous and charismatic Sonya, and falls for her alluring cousin Leo. They introduce her to their communist politics, but Joan remains uncommitted.
On leaving Cambridge with a certificate – females were not awarded degrees at the time – Joan is recruited into the ‘Tube Alloys’ project and her education can be put to good use. This proves to be the time when her beliefs, ideals and loyalties are tested in extremis.
As the interviews progress, Joan’s son Nick, a QC, sits at her side. Here, Jennie Rooney squeezes the tension as Nick faces the truth about his mother and Joan grapples with her answers to protect Nick as much as she can.
Red Joan is a novel that explores ambiguities, grey areas and the two sides of a coin. In plotting the course of personal development and disclosure of changing motivation Rooney creates characters with whom we sympathise whatever the next page throws up. It is also an unusual mix of spy thriller and love story as we track the life of Red Joan.
As an evocation of its period Red Joan offers us a novel that feels fastidiously researched for detail, embedding us with ease in time and place. What is now perceived to be short decades back is shown as light years away in terms of culture, behaviour and the stresses of day to day living.
‘Joan’s voice is almost a whisper. “Nobody talked about what they did during the war. We all knew we weren’t allowed to.”’
Red Joan is a provocative novel that will get people talking; perfect for an engrossing solo read or to fire the phosphorous flame of discussion in a book club. Was Joan right in her choices? And did she get what she deserved?
This review appeared in last week’s print edition of the Catholic Herald.