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Red Joan: Book Review

This is a guest post by Sarah Jasmon– author, journalist and copywriter.

Red Joan was written by Jennie Rooney and published by Chatto and Windus in 2013. It’s loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who supplied intelligence to the Russians for forty years. Her activities were only exposed in 1999, when she was 87.

Blending fact and fiction, Rooney brings to life the Communist circles of Cambridge in the late 1930s and Russian spying on the British nuclear weapons project.

In Red Joan, Rooney explores the journey of a realistic female spy, who uses her ‘invisibility’ as a low-ranking female to her advantage.

Warning: Major spoil­ers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret [/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.

Red Joan: Logline

In a quiet English town, an old lady resists the questioning of MI5 whilst trying not to alienate her barrister son. She must hold out until the end of the week to avoid a betrayal she cannot contemplate.

Red Joan: Plot Summary

The Ivory Tower

In 1937, Joan Stanley, a sheltered 18-year-old, goes up to Cambridge to study Physics. There, she is encouraged to break boundaries by the exotic Russian émigré, Sonia Galich, who also introduces Joan to her glamorous cousin, Leo. Leo is researching an economics PhD, looking for proof that communism works. They become lovers, and Joan experiences communist ideals and camaraderie, although remaining aloof.

William Mitchell is a fellow member of the group. Leo visits Russia; on his return, he confides that he has been shown proof of ‘irregularities’ in Soviet grain figures by one Grigori Fyodorovich. Leo swears Joan to secrecy.

With the war looming, Joan finds that she is pregnant, and Sonya persuades her to visit a back street abortionist and not tell Leo. During the painful aftermath, Sonya announces that she is going to Switzerland; in a semi-delirious state, Joan lets slip about Grigori and the grain figures.

Our Brave Allies

War breaks out, and Leo is interned, and then sent to Canada. Joan is taken on as personal assistant to the Director of the Tube Alloys project, which is secretly researching the development of atomic weapons. She makes tea for Churchill when he visits the project; he emphasises the importance of not letting ‘the Yanks’ be in control of atomic energy.

William, who has started on his Foreign Office career, tries to enlist Joan to ‘share’ information with the Russians, but she refuses. She also resists Leo’s arguments when he turns up for a brief visit. Sonya has married an Englishman and returns to Cambridgeshire. Joan is chosen to accompany the director of the research facility, Max, to Canada and, on the boat over, they begin an affair.

Whilst they are in Canada, they meet the scientist Kierl (based on the real life spy, Klaus Fuchs). Joan also has a brief encounter with Leo, and again resists his attempts to persuade her to ‘share’ secrets.

Back in England, the Hiroshima bomb coincides with the death of Joan’s beloved father. She is racked with guilt about her connection to the bomb, and feels that her father would be disappointed in her. Eventually, she decides to pass data to Sonya, but realises that she will have to give up her relationship with Max.


Joan is nearly unmasked when the lab is investigated following the arrest of Kierl for spying. She escapes notice by hiding the pieces of her Leica camera in a packet of sanitary towels, which the investigator is too squeamish to examine.

Leo spends a short time in England before heading to Moscow, where he is shot as a traitor. (In a present day MI5 questioning scene, the elderly Joan realises from documents that he was betrayed by Sonya).

William keeps her going. Max reveals that he has asked his wife for a divorce. Russia launches a bomb of its own, revealing the existence of a spy, and Max is arrested. Joan goes to Sonya’s house for help only to find that Sonya and her family have disappeared.

She then visits Max in prison and confesses that she was the spy. [blackout]She says she is leaving the country, but will provide evidence to make sure that he, Max, will be released. He says that he wants to go with her, and William manages to spirit them both away to Australia, where they have a happy marriage.[/blackout]


This story is interspersed by the present day questioning of the elderly Joan by MI5, who want corroboration of William’s treason. Some unspecified new evidence has led William to commit suicide by way of a curare-impregnated needle. MI5 need proof of his treachery to order an autopsy before his cremation, so they have a ticking clock. [blackout]Joan refuses to betray William, motivated by all his kindness to her and Max.[/blackout]

Joan’s adopted son, Nick, is a barrister and unaware of his parents’ past. He is initially outraged at the accusations, and then horrified as his mother is unable to deny them.[blackout]Joan manages to keep William’s secret, although she collapses once the press is alerted to her story.[/blackout]

Red Joan: Analysis

It’s a fact that most spy novels are written by men. The protagonists are generally men, and women are often included purely as a romantic interest for the hero. Helen McInnes, it’s true, has female characters with potential, but they are stranded in the world of the forties and fifties, with protective men to save them. I was looking forward to reading a spy novel with a female protagonist. How did it go?

Melita Norwood, the spy from whom Jennie Rooney takes her inspiration, who is said to have been more important to the Soviets than any of the Cambridge Five. She stayed successfully under the radar for over forty years, possibly because nobody suspected a woman of spying. She was innocuous, unremarkable, just a secretary. It could be said, of course, that many male spies are also innocuous, that being unremarkable is a requirement.

The trouble with writing a story about a spy who was successful because she was an unremarkable woman is that, well, it’s not that exciting.

The storyline is rich in many ways. There’s a satisfyingly entwined sense of relationships and how they affect our decisions. The tension between the elderly mother with secrets and the bewildered son who is struggling to keep up with the revelations adds a great deal to the present day episodes. The settings are convincing throughout. The ongoing question of why Sir William is so pivotal to the interrogation when he’s a minor figure in the early plot keeps the reader guessing.

Sonya is a great character, outrageous and tough, and most convincingly the Communist zealot. Max also comes out as an utterly believable, and very appealing, character. The blend of fact and fiction was satisfying and seamless, at least to my eyes. Rooney has clearly been diligent in her research, but she writes lightly, and in superb prose.

However, the main character, Joan, is a little dull. I was left with no clear picture, even, of how she looked, and I couldn’t really see why the handsome, sought after Leo would fall for her. She is made to not be convinced by the popular Communist rhetoric of 30s Cambridge. She sees through the image of the great Stalin, but there’s no real sense that she’s particularly perceptive.

Rooney has said that she wanted Joan to pass over the secrets of the atom bomb from a political conviction, not a Communist conviction. She makes Joan see it as redressing an imbalance, keeping the promises made by the Allies to the Soviets. It’s a bit forced and lacking in  conviction. She needs some better motivation.

Red Joan: Alternative Book Cover

The cover uses two themes, the nuclear explosion in the background is from Operation Hurricane, Britain’s first nuclear weapon’s test. The star and the font are reminiscent of the Soviet Union without resorting to clichés like having letters back to front.

Alternative book cover for Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

Red Joan: My Rating

This is a lovely, literary book, but don’t expect daring escapades or narrow escapes. Instead enjoy an imaginative retelling of a moment in history.

Want to Read It?

You can listen to Jennie Rooney discussing the inspiration of the novel here.

The novel is on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.

Red Joan: The Movie

An adaptation of Red Joan, directed by Trevor Nunn, and starring Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench, had its its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and will be released in early 2019.

Agree? Disagree?

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