Red Joan

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Inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, an eighty-seven-year old woman who was unmasked as the KGB's longest serving British spy in 1999, Red Joan is a well-researched and briskly paced historical novel that questions the black-and-white morality of wartime society. Brilliantly structured and psychologically acute, this compelling novel provides no easy answers, instead offering a kaleidoscope of conflicting choices and questionable motives. And once the authorities close in, is there ever such a thing as ...

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Red Joan

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Inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, an eighty-seven-year old woman who was unmasked as the KGB's longest serving British spy in 1999, Red Joan is a well-researched and briskly paced historical novel that questions the black-and-white morality of wartime society. Brilliantly structured and psychologically acute, this compelling novel provides no easy answers, instead offering a kaleidoscope of conflicting choices and questionable motives. And once the authorities close in, is there ever such a thing as atonement and forgiveness?

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Ferguson
Rooney has done her research, and her portrait of a young woman confused by the boundaries of love and ideology is compelling. In an era when state-sanctioned violence was rampant and paranoia reigned, the story of how one woman grappled with her conscience offers insight into how circumstance can shape morality.
Publishers Weekly
Desperate times call for desperate measures in Rooney’s second novel (after Inside the Whale), a page-turning saga of spies, conflicted loyalty, and the grave consequences of good intentions, inspired by the true story of an Englishwoman, Melita Norwood, who was unmasked as a KGB spy in 1999 at age 87. When we first meet Joan Stanley, she is an elderly woman being visited by the British Security Service, who inform her she will be outed as a Soviet mole in the House of Commons in a few days’ time. As she is interrogated, the questions prompt flashbacks to Joan’s days at Cambridge in the late 1930s, where, as a physics student, she met the idealistic Leo Galich and his glamorous cousin Sonya, both communist sympathizers. The book shifts back and forth through time; as the MI5 interrogators press for a confession, Joan reminisces about falling in love with Leo, working at the Metals Research Facility, and learning coveted secrets about the making of the atomic bomb. She resists Leo’s encouragement to betray her country until the Americans drop the bomb on Hiroshima, and only after she makes the fateful decision to become a Soviet spy does she grasp the true nature of her new masters. Rooney’s prose is smooth and does not get in the way of her compelling, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (July)
Library Journal
In 1997, an 87-year-old British woman was revealed to have been an ace wartime spy for the KGB, most notably passing secrets needed to build an atomic bomb. From this juicy morsel of historical fact, Rooney invents Joan, an appealing, feisty girl working on her certificate in physics at Cambridge University. Smart and capable, she is recruited for a job at the Metals Research Facility. At university, she'd made friends with expatriate cousins Leo and Sonya Galich and through them comes to believe that sharing technical details with the Communists could make the world safer. Does she get away with it? Rooney deftly alternates between the MI5's week-long interrogation of Joan in 2006 and the events of the 1940s, displaying Joan's naïve intentions followed by her steely deeds once her idealism crumbles. VERDICT Rooney's first novel, Inside the Whale, was short-listed for the Costa Award, and her effort here should place this work among the most engrossing fiction produced about the Cambridge graduates whose espionage activities were legendary. With genuine reports from archives and scholarly sources underlying the tale, Rooney convincingly and gracefully fleshes out this antiheroine whose survival instincts belie her dreams of a contented family life.—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A World War II spy novel that delves into the complex reasons for betrayals of both country and friends.In 2005, an old English woman is being interrogated about her past when it's suspected that she was a traitor to her country. The questions lead her to relive her life and her loves and the complex reasons for her actions. In the 1940s, the U.S., Canada and Britain are collaborating on the secret physics of the atom bomb. Joan Stanley is a student at Cambridge University, “educated in the religion of reason,” and attends meetings in support of the Soviet Union and the bright promise of a collective society. Sonya, a fellow student with panache and an eye for men, takes Joan under her wing, introducing her to her cousin Leo, a proponentof the Russian cause. Handsome, erudite Leo pursues Joan, romantically as well as ideologically. Because of her education in science, Joan is hiredas a personal assistant at the laboratory in charge of the U.K. portion of the nuclear project. Leo asks her to smuggle secrets out for the Soviet government. The argument is for parity, deterrence. If Soviet Russia also has nuclear capability, the Allies would never use their own. But Joan is steadfast in her loyalty to her country, and she's convinced that the threat of mass destruction is enough to end the war. Hiroshima changes everything for her and the world. Rooney elegantly presents a woman who was living a “calm and contented existence” when MI5 came knocking on her door. She has been found out after so many years, and the turmoil begins again in her life. Rooney has created a wonderful narrative structure in which the old woman’s memory is triggered by the interrogation; as Joan lives the past for us, she reveals most, but not all, to her questioners.This spy novel reveals itself at a calm pace through the memories of a loving woman. It is elegantly written and probes the valueof loyalty to a meaningful life.
The Barnes & Noble Review

On a quiet Sunday morning in the London suburb of Sidcup, an eighty-seven-year-old widow hears that an elderly acquaintance has died. The newspaper obituary for Sir William Mitchell contains a few small revelations: childhood polio, for instance. But the official cause of death is no surprise to Joan Stanley. "What she had already known was this: that he would appear to die peacefully in his sleep." With this mild shock, Jennie Rooney, in Red Joan, weaves the first thread of a delicate web that will span almost seventy years and encompass the greatest horrors of the twentieth century.

For all its reach and its emotional power, however, Red Joan is remarkable for the air of stillness that Rooney's uncluttered style creates. Her measured sentences perfectly convey not only the regularity of Joan's life, with its weekly ballroom dancing and art classes, but also the fragility at its core. Fragility and dread. On Joan's bedside table lies a medal, an old gift from William that contains a lethal dose of curare. "Death by asphyxiation," she muses. "So motionless that it passes for peaceful." When two MI5 agents appear at her door later that morning, she fleetingly considers suicide before yielding to an interrogation that reveals, over seven days, a drama of love, idealism, and betrayal that is as moving as it is thrilling.

"You're accused of twenty-seven breaches of the Official Secrets Act," the icy Ms. Hart warns, "which is effectively treason." Long- buried evidence suggests that Joan, as a young physicist working on Britain's atomic bomb project during the war, leaked documents to the Soviet Union. (Rooney's novel was inspired by the 1999 case of Melita Norwood, an elderly KGB spy unmasked in London). When her outraged son demands an explanation, " . . . she whispers a single word. 'Hiroshima.' " The name echoes on the page, the images flicker, so effectively has Rooney returned us to that moment in 1945 when " . . . the dust swells and regurgitates, clawing at the earth as it rises." And Joan concludes, " . . . where next? Wherever America decides."

Moving back and forth between the tense interrogation and the unfolding drama of the past, between youth and old age, Rooney wonderfully evokes not only the political consciousness of the time but also the exhilaration — and the terror — of being young and risking everything. For love as well as for conscience. "She is a student. She is eighteen years old. The poetry is inevitable," Joan recalls of attending Cambridge and surrendering to romance while being " . . . educated in the religion of reason." There she meets the exotic Communist émigré Sonya Galich and Sonya's cousin Leo, who dismisses love as "emotion without intellect" but breaks Joan's heart finally with his death. A death around which the novel's most elegant twist is spun.

"It can be hard to hold onto the things you thought you knew about yourself," Joan observes, "the things that seem so definite when there is nothing there to test them." In a novel as restrained and affecting as the character around which it revolves, this truth — like Rooney's masterful portrait of old age — is newly minted.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609452049
  • Publisher: Europa
  • Publication date: 7/1/2014
  • Pages: 390
  • Sales rank: 312,824
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennie Rooney was born in Liverpool in 1980. She studied History at the University of Cambridge and taught English in France before moving to London to work as a lawyer. Her first novel, Inside the Whale, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.

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Customer Reviews

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