Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review of Red Joan by Jennie Rooney (Vintage, 2013)

1937, aged 18, Joan heads to Cambridge University to study science.  There she meets the confident and exotic Sonya Galich, a refugee from Russia, and her dashing cousin, Leo.  Enchanted by Sonya and swept off her feet by Leo, Joan is pulled into their orbit and their communist agitating for worker rights and Spanish republicans.  Nearly seventy years later one her acquaintances from that time, Sir William Mitchell, is being investigated for espionage, committing suicide before being exposed.  Having carefully protected her past, a knock at her door threatens to expose Joan’s secret past.

Red Joan is loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood, the Soviet’s longest serving British spy who was exposed in 1999.  Unlike Norwood, Joan is not a committed communist, but rather went to Cambridge University in the late 1930s as an idealist, raised by a socialist father.  There she meets cousins, Sonya and Leo, falling in love with the latter and joining their political circle.  Together they groom Joan and once the Second World War has started and she has finished her degree they arrange a job for her as a secretary at an atomic research centre.  Red Joan tells her story through two interwoven strands, one set in the past, the other detailing Joan’s interrogation by MI5 whilst simultaneously trying to deal with her barrister son who has taken on the role of her legal brief.  It’s a narrative structure that works very well, aided expressive prose, nicely crafted characterisation, and a carefully constructed plot.  A particular strength of the story is how Rooney unsettles any straightforward black and white reading of being a traitor, providing a layered, nuanced and poignant account that gradually exposes a long held secret and its consequences, and explores themes of motive, ideology, conscience, guilt, regret, and protection.  An engaging and thought provoking traitor’s tale.



4 comments:

RTD said...

As I have recently returned to reading spy novels (i.e., Le Carre's), I am intrigued enough by your fine review to add this one to my TBR list. Thanks!

Clothes In Books said...

I've had this on my radar for a while, and encouraged by your review I might give it a go....

Rob Kitchin said...

RTD, it's a spy story but not really in Le Carre mode as there's no mystery as such. More an extended reveal and exploration of motive and consequence.

CiB, there's plenty of descriptions of clothes to keep you happy!

Cheers, Rob

crimeworm said...

I've had this in my TBR pile since it came out, but this great review has made me think it's time I hauled it out! Love a bit of subterfuge and skullduggery (love that word!) Thanks for reminding me of it!