Based on the real life story of Melita Norwood, an eighty seven year old woman who was unmasked as the KGB's longest serving British spy in 1999, this is a flawless novel. Joan Stanley is a loving grandmother, living quietly in the suburbs, but she has a dark secret and it is about to come and haunt her. When she reads of the death of her old acquaintance Sir William Mitchell, she realises "they" have finally come for him, after all these years. If they came for him, they will come for her and, indeed, she is soon arrested and interrogated by MI5.
This novel swops effortlessly between the present, and Joan's interrogation, and flashbacks to her earlier life and her meeting with exotic Sonya Galich at Cambridge in 1937. We read of Sonya and her cousin, Leo, a known communist sympathiser. Joan is a naive young girl, but a totally sympathetic character. Everything that happens to her is realistic, from her crush on Leo to her wartime work in atomic research, working with Professor Max Davis. Throughout the entire book, Joan has a very personal viewpoint - good and bad, individual responsibility and love for the people she knows. One of the most poignant relationships is actually between Joan and her son, Nick, and her guilt at disrupting his life and her desire to protect him. In the end, you feel Joan may have been misguided, guilty or innocent, but she is basically a good person. This is a moving and intelligent book, beautifully written and totally believable. It would be an excellent, thought provoking novel for reading groups and I recommend it highly.
British author Jennie Rooney was first inspired to write this story of spies within the British intelligence service when she read a newspaper article in 1999 about Melita Norwood, age eighty-seven, who had just been unmasked as the "most important and longest-serving Soviet spy of the Cold War era." Ms. Norwood's interview with the press and her appearance on television in the wake of this revelation was, according to Rooney, "rather economical with the truth, and not hugely remorseful," and Rooney had a hard time imagining the circumstances under which a seemingly innocent worker for several British labs would have willingly passed documents and research notes to Russia in the frantic race to develop nuclear weapons. She also wanted to understand why and how Norwood could betray her own country and still live quietly and comfortably, in the country whose secrets she had so treacherously revealed.
The result is a thoughtful and provocative novel, not a biography, in which a character named Joan Stanley leads a life somewhat similar to that of Melita Norwood in its external details, though the author asserts strongly that "Joan Stanley is not intended to be a representation of Melita Norwood." Likewise, she says, the character of Sonya Galich, who "controlled" Joan Stanley's spying, is similar in some ways to the real Ursula Beurton, Melitta Norwood's friend, whose code name was Sonya, though Sonya Galich is not based on Beurton's real life. Klaus Fuchs, a very real spy, collected information from British, American and Canadian labs, and the novel's fictional character Kierl behaves similarly, passing information to Russia, until Kierl, like Fuchs, is caught and convicted of spying in 1950. All this realistic historical detail gives verisimilitude to the novel and brings the times and the atmosphere at the end of World War II to vibrant life.
The novel begins dramatically, in the present, with the ominous death of Sir William Mitchell of the Foreign Office, a man Joan Stanley has known well for more than sixty years, and she is not really surprised when "they" come for her later that morning and accuse her of twenty-seven breaches of the Official Secrets Act" - treason. As she thinks back about her own life as an eighteen-year-old Cambridge student majoring in physics, she thinks, too of her flamboyant fellow student Sonia Galich, a Russian emigree. Under Sonia's guidance, Joan finds herself taking part in anti-fascist activities, meeting socialists and communists, and falling in love with Sonya's Russian emigree cousin Leo, who travels occasionally back to Russia, and who tries to convince Joan to help him by providing secret atomic information, necessary, he says, to preserve the balance of power among the world's leading nations.
With her relatively straightforward plotting and the revealing back-and-forth of the point of view, the author develops her characters and their relationships, providing the reader with insights into the extraordinary circumstances which might drive someone to betray his/her country. Ultimately, the novel moves beyond the time and place of the setting to larger questions of one's overriding obligations to a nation (and the world at large) during times of unprecedented upheaval, forcing the reader to consider his/her own role as a human being and then as a citizen of a particular country.
on 7 October 2014
This is a fantastic book about the complexities of relationships and doing things you wouldn't consider yourself capable of. It is well written and Joan is a very human character. The depiction of life at Cambridge still holds elements of familiarity with today. Gripping reading.
on 14 September 2014
I loved this book. A spy thriller which leaps easily between past and present. A seemingly homely lady whose life as a spy betraying her country catches up with her in old age. Our sympathies tend to be with her as we realize how easily each one of us can be misled by passion.
on 3 March 2015
Well written , flows nicely and intriguing . However a touch of a naive woman got me feeling less sympathetic to her character . However that's what a good story is about I suppose - making you care about the characters .
Joan Stanley is an eighty-five-year-old grandmother living in south-east London. One morning she reluctantly answers the door to find the Security Services have come to question her about her past after all these years.
The dual time narrative structure of the novel is employed very effectively here, with the now elderly Joan recounting her story to the MI5 operatives, so that we move from the present to the past and back with her as we read.
We are transported back to 1937, Joan Robson is a student at Cambridge, where she meets and befriends Sonya Galich and her cousin Leo. Her friendship with them will shape her life. They are supporters of communism and Joan becomes involved with their activities though never commits herself wholly to the cause. When World War Two begins, Joan is recruited to work with scientists in a laboratory on the `Tube Alloys' project - developing an atomic weapon. Over the coming years, as old friends leave and re-enter her life, and the war comes to a close with events she had hoped never to see, her character and her loyalties will be severely tested.
This spy novel which spans the period from the late 1930s to the time of the Cold War was inspired by a true story of a British spy who was unmasked after many years as having worked for the Soviets.
Red Joan boasts a gripping narrative and a compelling lead character. The intrigue builds and I found the progression of the plot towards the ending fascinating. I was engrossed and intrigued by Joan; she is at once an intelligent yet naïve character. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her life and about society then, Joan's position as a woman working in a scientific field, pursuing studies and a career despite her mothers wishes, falling in love and learning for the first time how it felt to be truly loved in return, yet fraught at the situation she finds herself in, torn between loyalty to her country and the deep need to do what she feels is right. We see her grow convincingly as she learns from what has happened in her life. In a very fitting use of language, Joan ponders: `How strange the human mind is, she thinks. Unknowable and unpredictable, its thoughts whizzing like electrons inside an atom. Invisible to the human eye.'
This is an absorbing and accomplished novel and causes us to ask `Where does responsibility begin, and where does it end?'
Jenny Rooney's third novel is loosely inspired by the story of Melita Norwood, unmasked in her eighties as a spy for the Russians. Rooney's heroine Joan Stanley is a respectable widow in her 80s, returned to the UK after decades in Australia. One morning her tranquil existence, painting watercolours, gardening and going to ballroom dancing classes, is interrupted by the arrival of intelligence officers, who've found out that in the 1940s Joan provided Russian intelligence officers with highly confidential information? Why? The story flits between Joan's present-day interrogation, attended by her adopted son, a QC who had no idea about his mother's past, and Joan's own youth. The child of a socially-committed schoolmaster father, and a mother whose experiences in World War I had given her a horror of violence, Joan grew up in the turbulent 1930s, and won a scholarship to read Natural Science at Newnham College Cambridge in 1937. There, she led a placid, hardworking life - until she met glamorous Russian emigree Sonya and Sonya's charismatic cousin Leo. These two attempt to convert Joan to Communism - soon she finds herself drawn towards the movement, not from political belief, but from her deep attraction to Leo. However, Leo remains oddly evasive, even as the pair draw closer, and during World War II vanishes to Canada. After graduation, Joan, with Leo's encouragement, gets a job in a team who are carrying out research into the possibilities of nuclear power (for weapons, but also for future energy sources). She rather enjoys her work - and the attentions of the charismatic professor heading the project - but then Leo gets in touch, to suggest that she might help the comrades and the future of mankind by handing over some of the secret information from her research to the Russians. Now heavily committed to her team and her professor, Joan resists - until Hiroshima suddenly makes her query the good will of the Americans and British. Suppose they turn on Russia? But on the other hand, can Joan betray her team and her country's secrets, particularly to a former lover who she cannot entirely trust?
Rooney, a trained historian, has researched the period immaculately, and there is much fascinating information in the book (though I'm not sure feelings towards the Russians were so hostile during World War II - I thought it was the 1950s when the atmosphere began to get nasty). The story's twists and turns are fascinating to follow, and Rooney keeps us guessing as to exactly what Joan did and what will happen to her right to the end of the novel. I also found Rooney's refusal to turn the book into a fast-paced thriller rather admirable; the low-key style made it oddly even more compelling. Nevertheless, I did have one major problem with the novel - I didn't find Joan a particularly convincing or interesting heroine. Rooney was so keen to make it clear Joan was not a committed Communist that her reasons for doing what she did came across as unconvincing. I couldn't believe she'd become a spy for the Russians simply because she (as many did, including some Americans!) felt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were appalling acts of violence. Surely to do what she did, and to stay so close to Leo and Sonya, she'd have had to have had some political sympathies with Communism? But apart from a rather weak remark to her son about 'I think Communism could be a great system', Joan seems to have no political beliefs whatsoever. She is bored by the films Leo takes her to and his lectures on Russia's progress, she seems to know little about what was going on in Russia, and she feels no pleasure or sense of 'doing the right thing' in handing the information over. Despite her resistance at first, she seems to largely do what she does because she wants to be 'in' with Leo and Sonya, and get them to like her. Her whole commitment to Communism is really due to her attraction to Leo - and I couldn't believe that an intelligent woman would go that far. Mind you, Joan didn't seem that intelligent for a lot of the book - to be a Cambridge scientist in the 1930s you'd have had to have had a steely ambition and determination, but Joan in fact came across as rather girly, enjoying flirting, watching romantic films and reading detective novels, and wanting to join the WRENS 'so I can wear a nice uniform and go on excursions'. Ultimately I found Joan uninteresting for the most part, and would have cared much more about her if Rooney had shown her experiencing the struggle (experienced in real life by a large number of great thinkers, such as Doris Lessing in the UK and Zygmunt Bauman in Poland in the 1950s) between a genuine hope that Communism would improve the world, and a fear that Russia was in fact not to be trusted, and that the Communist movement was going badly wrong. I also found Leo and Sonya rather thinly portrayed (and as Russians who'd left their country not long after the Revolution and moved abroad, would they really have been so committed to their mother country, particularly the beautifully-groomed Sonya?) and the romance between Max and Joan a little idealized, particularly at the end, where a lot happened in rather a rush. Nevertheless, I'd give the novel four stars for its interesting historical content, and for Rooney's thorough research and fluent style. This was an ambitious book, and though I don't feel it quite came off (I'll be interested to read Rooney's smaller-scale first two novels) I was still very glad to have read it.
on 8 March 2015
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.
It is very obvious where Jennie Rooney has taken the idea for her novel "Red Joan" from. As she acknowledges fully, it has its origin in the 1999 story of Melita Norwood whose espionage for the Russians wasn't discovered until she was in her late 80s, but while Norwood was a dyed in the wool communist, Rooney offers a more complex back story to her character, Joan. The result is a very different type of spy novel than normal. Joan, a widowed grandmother, is going about her day to day life when MI5 come knocking on her door to ask about her past. The narrative switches between their questions to her and her recollections of her time at Cambridge in the late 1930s where communist feelings were, by some, given a more sympathetic ear. When Joan falls for Leo, the cousin of her Russian born friend Sonya, she gets dragged into a world that is dangerous and morally complex.
In one of the very few slightly clunky, but also useful, devices the book employs, Joan's son is an eminent QC with absolutely no idea of his mother's former life. This allows him to be present during the MI5 questioning which gives a more personal aspect to her past decisions. So once the reader gets over the "oh, that's handy" aspect of this, it does add another dimension to the story.
While most spy novels seem to concentrate on action and sleuthing, Rooney's approach is much more to look at the psychology and reasons why someone might find themselves working for "the other side", although of course for much of the Second World War, Russia's side was that of the Allies. While there is an element of Joan's actions being driven by the man she loved, there is also an interesting moral dimension to her decision. She was certainly no push over and it took world events to make her take action.
The result is compulsive reading. The reader finds themself willing poor Joan on and there's no doubt our sympathies are with her, even when it becomes clear that MI5 do have a case. Most of the story is told in flash back and it's fascinating to read and you are never sure who to trust, and more importantly neither is Joan.
While the impact and issues are global, Rooney's approach it to make this a very personal story for Joan. There's love, loss, betrayal, friendship and secrets galore and it gives a believable insight on how one, normal person might be let to betray her country. The true mark of the story is that you find yourself thinking that you might have done exactly what Joan did in those circumstances.
It's certainly more of a moral and psychological spy novel than an action packed one, and that is very much the book's strength. It's cleverly plotted and you are equally keen to hear about the past as about how the present day questioning is going. It also subtly asks if someone who has done a traitorous thing in exceptional circumstances is therefore a traitor forever.
on 11 April 2014
As an elderly woman, Joan is interrogated about her part in sharing secret's with Stalin's Russia during the war many years prior. Her flashbacks throughout this interview paint a picture of an uncertain young woman at the mercy of others far better at manipulation and subterfuge than she but you never lose sight of the sense of responsibility she feels for her actions.