I was fascinated by the original premise of ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney which is based on the true story of Melita Norwood who was famously unmasked as the KGB’s longest serving British spy at the age of eighty-seven in 1999. In Rooney’s fictionalised version of events, Joan Stanley, an eighty-five year old woman living in the suburbs of south east London, receives a visit from two British intelligence operatives who have come to question her about her past after so many decades of silence. The story is cleverly told through a series of flashbacks as the links between Joan’s past and present are gradually revealed.
I read ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it, so I guess it wasn’t a wholly unconscious decision to pick up another spy story about a Cambridge University student so soon afterwards. However, despite the similar setting, the novels are very different. Whereas Serena Frome becomes a spy for MI5 during the Cold War, Joan befriends communists Sonya and Leo Galich while attending university in the late 1930s. She is later recruited to work on the Tube Alloys project towards the end of the war developing an atomic weapon and supplies secrets to the KGB following the atomic bomb in Hiroshima believing it to be the moral thing to do.
‘Red Joan’ is a thriller but is not particularly fast-paced. The different aspects of the story – the romance, the intrigue, the politics – are well balanced throughout and the flashbacks device is used very effectively. Although Rooney ultimately presents a sympathetic portrayal of Joan and the reasons behind her actions and the choices she made, there are various ambiguities in her character which give the reader a lot to think about. Is she really a traitor? To what extent was she manipulated into becoming an agent?
‘Red Joan’ is one of the most enjoyable and absorbing books I have read this year. I am surprised that it hasn’t had a higher profile in the end of year best of lists which are appearing all over the media at the moment. Highly recommended.