Thursday, August 1, 2013

Shelf Life [adult]

Red Joan By Jennie Rooney

In the days before World War II the shadow of communism took a back seat to the more imminent threats of Fascism in the form of the Nazis – those who believed in Communism were thrown for a loop when Stalin sided with Hitler, but in the decade following the war it was Communism the world feared. 80-year-old Joan, living in Kent, is not surprised when agents from MI5 finally show up at her door. She is resigned but also desperate to protect her son, a high-ranking judge, from the truth of her past – she had indeed passed state secrets along to the Soviet Union. Joan’s story gradually unfolds in flashbacks to her days at pre-World-War II Cambridge, meeting people like Leo, her first love, and his glamorous cousin Sonya, who expressed the kind of idealism that became dangerous, and eventually spawned some of the most notorious Communist spies of the Cold War. Leo gets deported to Canada, far from the horrors of the Blitz, and Joan begins work for the “Metals Research Facility” at Cambridge (which, under the Official Secrets Act, was something entirely different). While quite intelligent and fiercely independent – she never joins the Communist Party – Joan turns out to be a poor judge of character, trusting those she definitely should not, while only slowly coming to trust those she should – a constant dilemma when one has chosen to betray one’s country.  It is not the only dilemma Joan faces, and the ethical questions the novel raises makes Red Joan a great pick for any book club discussion. Jennie Rooney was inspired to write Red Joan after learning about the exploits of the “granny spy” Melita Norwood who passed British nuclear secrets to the Russians during the Cold War. While Norwood remained an unapologetically staunch supporter of Communism her whole life, Joan believes her motives stem from the political climate of the times – whether she is correct in this, you the reader get to decide.  Find Red Joan and other titles reviewed in this column at under the tag Shelf Life Reviewed.

This review appears in The Stratford Gazette on August 1, 2013. Written by Robyn Godfrey, Librarian.

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