This review appeared in nb74.
With no information available online, I volunteered to review Red Joan on trust as it were, having enjoyed Jennie Rooney's The Opposite of Falling. So my heart sank when I saw the words 'spy thriller' on the back cover of the proof copy I received (a BIG mistake on the publisher’s part, in my view).
To me, those words are suggestive of a labyrinthine plot and an almost exclusively male cast with a token femme fatale.
Instead, Red Joan puts suburban, innocent Joan right at the centre, as she goes off to Cambridge in 1937 with her homemade ‘university trousseau’. Joan’s Home Counties upbringing is no defence against Russian refugee cousins sophisticated Sonya and idealistic Leo, who persuade Joan to ‘share’ the secrets of the atom bomb when she goes to work for a team of scientists.
The story touches on important themes such as love and friendship; loyalty to country, class and your own values; and the status of women. In pre-war Cambridge, female students, or 'graduettes', cannot graduate; abortion is illegal and dangerous; and even high-flyers end up making the tea at work. In fact, it’s Joan’s lowly position in the workplace hierarchy that makes her task of diverting documents so easy. No one suspects her for a moment.
Red Joan is inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, exposed at the age of 87 as a Cold War spy and dubbed 'the spy who came in from the Co-op’. As the action switches seamlessly between past and present, it's a nice touch that Joan's son cannot square her spying career with her present-day persona of loving mother, doting grandmother and ballroom-dancing enthusiast.
Even if, like me, you'd normally have to be bribed with a year’s supply of Green & Black’s to read anything labelled a 'spy thriller', do give this book a go. You’ll love it, I promise.