What’s Not Black and White…But Red All Over?

Jennie Rooney’s ‘Red Joan’, that’s what! I won’t be the first reader of Jennie Rooney’s ‘Red Joan’ to wish for a more…overt ending. But then I also won’t be the first to have been moved, before even halfway through the novel, to curiously Googling the true story it was inspired by.

What Was The Inspiration?

It’s the story of a woman growing up through the war-haunted decades of 20th century Britain, whose relationships and beliefs tentatively and gradually nudged her into spying against her country on behalf of Russia. No blazing torch of defiance…this is a believable, almost forgivable treachery.

Jennie’s book, much like its heroine, is delicate and unassuming. It builds a gentle intimacy, unthreatening, likable; all the time distracting from, though never truly hiding, the hard truth underneath. Dilemma is there from the start, not so much a question of whodunit but why, and what next?

Joan, now a widow in her 80’s living in suburban quiet, proud of her QC son and anxious over missing her watercolour class, is under house arrest. By the time you read this, her name will be announced in the House of Commons, revealing her as Agent Lotto, one of the KGB’s most valuable sources of information of the 1940s and 50s. Her anguished attempts to protect her son from the truth and indecision as to whether to admit her past mark a similar trajectory to the story of her youth, told in flashbacks. Both her confession and her previous betrayal are inevitable and inescapable. The tension builds as each decision is circled, examined, and finally succumbed to: thoroughly compelling.

This is above all, a historian’s novel. Rooney’s third, it stems from a paper on the History of Spycraft she read while at Cambridge University. Melita Norwood’s story stood out from the rest, not least because her unmasking came so much later on than those of her male colleagues. Rooney delved into archives, freshly declassified at Kew. Some are replicated in the text; reports on covert meetings and letters from GCHQ. Rooney insists this is not Norwood’s story, only inspired by it. But the flavour of post-war confusion is rooted in truth. The character of 1930-50s Cambridge is utterly convincing, without being heavy-handed. Removing the black and white from the Red, it has a historian’s subtlety which many spy thrillers lack.

‘Red Joan’s achievement is that treachery is humanised, far more so, perhaps, than in the true story. Melita Norwood was given a suspended sentence in light of her age and was happily and unrepentantly distributing copies of ‘The Red Star’ around her neighbourhood many years later. While it would be naïve to ascribe a less complicated motive to Norwood, Joan’s confused motives don’t need political sympathy. Anyone who has been swept up in the romanticism of a cause, the power of a compelling personality, a lover, a friend, would be hard hearted to condemn Joan offhand.

A fascinating window into a history-changing decision.

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