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Red Joan: Book Review

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

Red Joan, written by Jennie Rooney and published by Chatto and Windus in 2013, is loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who supplied intelligence to the Russians for forty years. The British government only exposed her activities 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.

Red Joan: Title

The title is a reference to the name of the Protagonist of the story, Joan Stanley, and that she’s working for the Soviets (‘Reds’ is a nickname for communists). Using the name of the Protagonist in the title is a classic title archetype.

(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)

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.

(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)

Red Joan: Plot Summary

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

The Ivory Tower

In 1937, Joan Stanley, a sheltered 18-year-old, goes up to Cambridge to study Physics. There, an exotic Russian émigré, Sonia Galich, introduces her 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 while there Grigori Fyodorovich showed him proof of ‘irregularities’ in Soviet grain figures. Leo swears Joan to secrecy.

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

Our Brave Allies

War breaks out, and the authorities intern Leo, and then send him to Canada. Joan becomes 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 and overhears him emphasising 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 accompanies 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 feels guilty about her connection to the bomb, and that it would have disappointed her father. Eventually, she decides to pass data about the bomb to Sonya, but realises that she will have to give up her relationship with Max.


Joan is nearly unmasked when MI5 investigate the lab 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 the KGB shoot him as a traitor. (In a present day MI5 questioning scene, the elderly Joan realises from documents that Sonya betrayed him).

William keeps her going. Max reveals he has asked his wife for a divorce. Russia explodes a bomb of its own, revealing the existence of a spy, and MI5 arrest Max. 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’s leaving the country, but will provide evidence to prove Max is innocent. He says that he wants to go with her, and William spirits them both away to Australia, where they have a happy marriage.[/blackout]


Interspersed with the wartime story is the present day interrogation of the elderly Joan by MI5, who want corroboration of William’s treason. Some unspecified fresh evidence has led William to commit suicide with a curare-impregnated needle, and MI5 need proof of his treachery to justify 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. The accusations initially outrage him but, when his mother doesn’t deny them, he’s horrified.[blackout]Joan keeps William’s secret, but collapses when harassed by the press.[/blackout]

(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)

Red Joan: Analysis

It’s a fact that men write the bulk of spy novels. Inevitably, the protagonists are usually men, and the novels often include women purely as a romantic interest for the hero.

Helen MacInnes, it’s true, wrote spy novels with female protagonists, but they exist 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, was 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. Of course, many male spies are also innocuous, being unremarkable is a requirement.

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

Despite that, Red Joan is a rich story. 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 struggles to keep up with her 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 had no clear picture, even, of how she looked, and I couldn’t really see why the handsome, sought after Leo would fall for her. Although she’s not convinced by the popular Communist rhetoric of 30s Cambridge, and sees through the image of the great Stalin, there’s no genuine 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. To me, that’s a bit forced, and 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 weapons 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?

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 was released in early 2019.

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

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