Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

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Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A slightly different take on the spy novel genre that looks at the reasons why someone might be drawn into passing on information. With a set up based on a true story, Rooney makes her spy more morally complex.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780701187576

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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.

Our thanks to the kind people at Chatto & Windus for sending us this book.

There's plenty of choice when it comes to spy fiction, but for another slightly different take on the genre, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is also worth checking out.

Buy Red Joan by Jennie Rooney at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Red Joan by Jennie Rooney at

Buy Red Joan by Jennie Rooney at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Red Joan by Jennie Rooney at


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