Youthful enthusiasm leads to treason accusation

April 23, 2015
By

Red Joan,
by Jennie Rooney (Random House, RRP $27):

An old-age pensioner living the quiet life in a London suburb, Joan’s world is rocked when her name is linked to a spy scandal dating back to the 1940s. Gradually, as she is interviewed by British security services, the tale is told in a series of flashbacks of how she had indeed become part of a Russian spy ring.

A cut-and-dried issue of treason becomes a story of youthful enthusiasm, social conscience, friendship, love and morality, as this milieu of emotions was encouraged and manipulated (at times very cynically) by a pair of Russian spies. It led to betrayal, blackmail and broken people. Now, 50 or so years later, Joan is faced with a series of hard decisions and new betrayals.

With our modern-day hindsight, the 1930s era, Cambridge-recruited communist spy has become a familiar idea. In fact, Rooney’s starting point is a real- life “Joan” outed in the 1990s after years spying for Russia.

All this feeling of reality makes the novel quite believable.

Joan’s story draws you into a time and place long ago with a real sense of how easy it could have been to be persuaded that the wrong thing to do could be the morally correct choice. Joan’s plight draws some sympathy but it is the how-did-it-turn-out suspense that kept me hooked and, thankfully, Rooney ties up all the loose ends in a satisfactory way.

F Mulligan

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