Red Joan

Written by Jennie Rooney
Review by Ann Northfield

Taking the more unusual approach of not if, but why, this novel is loosely based on the real life 87-year-old grandmother who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1999. Joan Stanley is taken in for questioning one morning regarding her previous employment of helping to develop the atomic bomb. Her lawyer son Nick is at first outraged and adamant about her innocence, but slowly realises (as many of us do in a less dramatic way) that there is often more than meets the eye regarding parent lives before the child comes along. Told through flashbacks interspersed with her scenes of her interrogation, Joan looks back at her time at Cambridge University and her fateful meeting with the mysterious Sonia and her dynamic and passionate Communist cousin Leo.

The characters are vividly realized, and their manipulation of the innocent Joan into traitorous actions is built up carefully and made very believable over the course of the novel. There is no tension really regarding whether she did it or not; instead the novel explores her mix of motivations, all of which serve to help her continue to remain a sympathetic or at least understandable character, despite her treason. It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking novel, particularly regarding issues such as nationalism, war and the nature of love. I thoroughly enjoyed the tale and will be seeking out more of this author’s work.