Inspired by the real-life ‘Spy Who Came In From The Co-Op’, Melitta Norwood, this is a terrific story of espionage with a difference. For Joan Stanley isn’t your archetypal spy when MI5 knock her front door and put her under house arrest – she’s in her mid-80’s!
Over the course of a week, told in part through interviews with MI5, Joan’s memories and a collection of MI5 documents collected since the 1930’s, we get to know what Joan did, and perhaps more importantly why. The story follows Joan’s life and loves from her early days as that rarest of things – a female student of sciences at Newnham in Cambridge – through her flirtation with both left-wing politics and personalities and eventually to the crossroads where she’s faced with the squaring her patriotism and her sense of fairness and equality. I wouldn’t want to give away any more of the plot than that for fear of spoiling what is a sort of whodunit and a sort of whydunit at the same time, all mixed together with an intriguing and very believable web of intrigue, lies and secrets.
It’s a book that really does turn the spy thriller genre on its head in some ways for unusually the thriller element isn’t woven around who the spy is, because you know it’s Joan from the start. Secondly Joan isn’t a glamorous, ultra-slick, one intellectual step ahead of everyone, super-spy. She’s a very ordinary spy and when you you think about it, that’s the genius in having a spy like Joan – you can’t see her for looking at her! This very simplicity on the surface is really what makes Joan a super-spy. To put it another way, Joan doesn’t need to take many steps to avoid suspicion or throw the authorities off her scent – they just assume she doesn’t have a scent in the first place!
It’s a written, cleverly plotted and really well-paced story. The narrative structure works effectively so that the linkage between the interviews, the documentary evidence and Joan’s memories is seamless. Equally it isn’t woven around a forward facing story that looks for the motive, or tries to unravel who the spy’s handler is for example. Instead it really does look at what makes Joan tick,the influences around her, both for and against taking up spying for Stalin, and the how and the why of what she does and subsequently how she tries to explain and justify it to herself and subsequently when she is finally picked up years later, to her family.
In the same way that it’s a spy thriller that flips the genre on its head, it’s also in many ways as much of a love story as it is a spy story. And I thought this worked which isn’t really the norm for me for I don’t find love and romance that interesting at the best of times – and certainly not in a spy thriller. But here it fits the other parts of the narrative brilliantly because Jennie Rooney has written a wonderful leading character-cum-enigma in Joan and then surrounded her with an exceptionally strong supporting cast in her past and present. The cousins Leo and Sonya, who she meets at Cambridge in the 1930’s draw her towards left-wing activism and though I found them a little bit clichéd on the odd occasion they were still fascinating. Later on the character of Max, head of the atomic research where Joan will work is equally strong and in the present day her adopted son Nick, a leading QC is a great counter-poise to Joan’s memories and the almost detached nature of the MI5 questioning.
The research seems to me to be meticulous in this novel – the Cambridge of the 1930’s is a strong setting and the subsequent detailing around the work of the atomic research facility and the trials of both the war and the pre-war years is very vivid, powerful and again a great backdrop.
After I finished Red Joan, I went on to read a bit more about Melita Norwood, the real life little old lady spy. There’s a real contrast in their motives and their beliefs and in a way I think this is the cleverest part of the way Jennie Rooney portrays Red Joan. She’s full of contradictions, naiveties, uncertainties and ambiguities. It drew me as the reader into the pretty unique position for anyone who reads Cold War spy thrillers – I was absolutely on the side of the Soviet Spy! I don’t think I’ve ever been there before! Red Joan was for me one of those “can’t put it down, can’t wait to get to the end but also don’t want to get to the end” kind of books. I loved it!