It took a while to get my head around Joan Stanley’s rationale. Growing up, I had heard about the Official Secrets Act and censored letters from my father who was in the second world war, but never about spies selling secrets: I gleaned by inference that espionage was problematic for all sides. Red Joan knew how to keep her lips zipped.
I really enjoyed this story and I put another book on hold to finished it. Before and after the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, there was a rash of fact and fiction war books from the UK and this is one of them.
The bombings are what I found missing in Jennie Rooney’s tale, the destruction and the precautions every citizen had to take every day to survive. Joan Stanley appears to live a charmed life in this regard, and not much of the physical devastation seems to touch her.
Of course, this story is character-driven, an emotional account of the Cold War, an internal struggle between what is right and wrong and justifying one’s decisions, rather than air-raids and bombed out buildings.
After a sheltered schooling, Joan attends Cambridge University where she meets flamboyant student Sonya; and Joan is easily swayed by Sonya’s handsome cousin Leo Galich. Slowly Joan is groomed to become a spy and eventually steals top secret documents. While her resolute decision to help the war effort unfolds beautifully and logically (to Joan at least) I couldn’t help thinking “Surely she isn’t that naive?” But she is, and this propels the story.
That, and romance. This is where cousin Leo comes in. What can I say about earnest socialist Leo? He is easy to picture—any handsome, charismatic, idealistic Uni student would fit his mould. I can excuse Joan’s love-struck crush on Leo but not her belief in her new friend Sonya, a powerful influence.
I thought Joan’s shared fur coat was a nice touch, it was the tenuous connection, the innocent thread throughout the story but it spoke volumes about their personalities.
Joan Stanley (loosely based on real spy Melita Norwood) specialises in theoretical physics and when she gets a job in a metals research facility, the touch-and-go desire with Professor Max Davis is well done, I could see that happening. The cast of males are oblivious to Joan’s duplicity, and receptionist Karen is pretty much ignored. For a laugh I pictured Karen afterwards as a retired MI5 operative.
As I said, I like this book and would recommend it, not for an in-depth look at the war effort but as a glimpse into the human side, the male/female relationships and the story behind the atomic bomb construction. Just enough details; the lab, scientific information, the protocols.
Destructive and fascinating at the same time.
Jennie Rooney’s modern day interrogators, Ms Hart and Mr Adams, were created a bit like Scully and Mulder from the X-Files, lots of meaningful glances at Joan, but they served their purpose well.
In the end, in my opinion, the unravelling of the story was pretty low-key. Sir William Mitchell was out of the game, so that left Leo and Sonya’s questionable career moves. Poor Joan, there seemed no end to her emotional turmoil before and after discovery.
Lately I’ve read a couple of books with weak transitions, but I thought the past and present were well written in Rooney’s story. She did a good job with Joan’s son Nick Stanley QC, a real fly-in-the-ointment (or our own subconscious thoughts?) and he had a Hollywood style moment at the end.
I like to pick out my favourite lines in a story and I quote:
There is a pause.
“Anyway”, Joan says, “I’d have thought the Soviets would be developing their own weapons?”
“They are. But it’s taking too long. They’re starting from a disadvantage.”
Leo sighs and reaches once more across the table.
“Please, Jo-jo. Don’t you see? You’re in a unique position here to change the history of the world.”
When VE-Day dawns on 8th May 2020 it will be 75 years since the end of the war in Europe so I guess there will be more books forthcoming.
Of course, we read in hindsight and that can be a wonderfully misleading thing.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Jennie Rooney was born in Liverpool in 1980. She read History at the University of Cambridge and taught English in France before moving to London to work as a solicitor. She lives in West London, and also writes and teaches History and English. The fictitious story of Joan Stanley, the KGB’s longest-serving British spy, is her third novel. It was adapted for the 2018 film ‘Red Joan’ directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Dame Judi Dench as aged Joan and Sophie Cookson as young Joan.
INTERVIEW: Read Jennie Rooney’s discussion with RadioTimes about ‘Red Joan’ her book that inspired the movie and why she made changes https://www.radiotimes.com/news/film/2019-08-28/red-joan-author-on-why-she-changed-the-true-story-for-judi-dench-movie-im-not-a-biographer/