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)
Praise for Red Joan
"A brilliant spy novel, with a deft, involving plot... tense, beautifully pitched and very moving."
"A page-turning saga of spies, conflicted loyalty, and the grave consequences of good intentions."
"Rooney has created a wonderful narrative structure [that] elegantly presents a woman who was living a 'calm and contented existence' when MI5 came knocking on her door."
"Rooney wonderfully evokes not only the political consciousness of the time but also the exhilaration — and the terror — of being young and risking everything...A drama of love, idealism, and betrayal that is as moving as it is thrilling."
—Barnes & Noble Review
"Rooney's re-creation of the politics of the day is brilliant."
"Red Joan's strength lies in the complex personal relationships that underpin the spying game... A powerfully written exploration of the far-reaching consequences that even the smallest-seeming actions can have."
"This is an infectious page-turner, as crafty and nuanced and impassioned as any classic thriller, but one that doesn't forget where its heart is."
"A sensitive spy thriller, finely detailed and resolutley sensitive. This excellent period novel still carries some considerable resonance in the age of Bradley Manning."
"Rooney is a novelist at home with life's ambiguities, her plotting pleasingly intricate, her narrative richly textured."
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
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.