Librarian, wife, scientist, grandmother, and traitor: Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney, is a novel inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, the longest-serving KGB spy. Norwood became a communist after she met and married her husband, also a life-long communist. Her position working as a secretary for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association allowed her to pass information about the British atomic bomb to their Russian counterparts. She was eventually unmasked in 1999, at the age of 87. Although Norwood eventually defected in 1992, she subsequently claimed that she had never regretted her actions. The story of Red Joan is based only loosely on Norwood, but it makes for fascinating source material.

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The narrative flits back and forth between Joan’s time at Cambridge University and afterwards, starting in 1937, and her interview with the security services at the age of 85. It’s a fascinating contrast: Joan is a traitor, who has intentionally committed treason over and over; she is also a nice old lady from the suburbs, who takes watercolour classes and dotes on her grandchildren. When her barrister son, Nick, finds out that she is suspected of being a KGB spy, he is outraged and indignant. He is ready to sue the security services for libel. Nick immediately assumes that it is a case of mistaken identity, and there is something a little patronising in his fury. He doesn’t assume this because of his belief in his mother’s absolute uprightness, but – it’s hinted – because she could never really do anything as interesting as being a spy. At one point, he says that he’s always thought of her as “just a mum”. The interviews by the security services act as a very effective vehicle for exploring the close but increasingly complex relationship between Nick and Joan, as decades of secrets come to light.

I thought that Joan’s time at university, especially the heady first few months of freedom, was written incredibly well. The sheer intoxication of it all, as she makes glamorous new friends and falls in love for the first time and learns fascinating things about physics – there is a kind of naive, breathless excitement to the story that ought to be irritating, but isn’t at all. Perhaps that’s because it’s framed as the much older, sadder Joan remembering and recounting what had happened. The two characters she meets early on in her time at Cambridge – Sonya and Leo – are both deeply flawed, complicated people, and it is easy to see why someone as sheltered and idealistic as Joan would be drawn to them. Leo becomes Joan’s first love, and some of the 30s and 40s narrative is given over to their developing relationship. Normally, I particularly dislike reading about people stuck in unhealthy relationships, and this certainly becomes one – but it is well-written enough that I didn’t get frustrated with the characters, just the situation.

Rooney is a skilled writer: Joan is consistently human, even a fairly sympathetic character, despite the bad decisions that she makes over the course of the novel, and the consequences that unfold. The moral ambiguity underpinning Joan’s decision to pass information to Russia is explored both in the context of the 1930s and 40s, and then again 70 years later, this time with all characters having full knowledge of how the 20th century panned out. It’s difficult to discuss the ins and outs of the plot, but because the reader knows from the very start that eventually Joan will agree to spy, the underlying tension occurs as we see her gradually being drawn into situations and conversations that will shape her into someone who is willing to commit treason.

One of the dangers of doing a split narrative like this is that one story will prove much more compelling than the other, and readers will resent the less interesting story. In this case, though, I think they are equally good. When I was in 2005 with Joan and Nick, I wanted much more of the story to be about that; when I was in 1937, at Cambridge and then watching Joan’s postdoctoral research, I wanted to stay there. I’m not sure how much of this is down to Juliet Stevenson’s excellent narration. Though both sections are third person, written from Joan’s point of view, Stevenson slightly changes the pace and tone of her voice when she alternates. 2005-era Joan is noticeably older, slower, and more measured.

The story did lag a little about 70% of the way in, but I am glad I continued as it more than rewarded my patience. Honestly, I’m not even sure how much of it was the story itself faltering, and how much was me just getting annoyed at the characters for their mistakes – which is a demonstration of how much I cared about them and was invested. This was the first one of Rooney’s novels that I have read, but I am sure it won’t be the last.