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Mary Whipple Reviews: "A thoughtful and provocative novel."

Date: Jul 23 2014

British author Jennie Rooney, who studied history at Cambridge, was first inspired to write this story of spies within Britain’s top secret atomic research labs when she read a newspaper article in 1999 about Melita Norwood, age eighty-seven, who was revealed to have been the “most important and longest-serving Soviet spy of the Cold War era.” After her unmasking, Ms. Norwood’s interview with the press and her appearance on television, in which she was “rather economical with the truth, and not hugely remorseful,” according to Rooney, energized Rooney to investigate further. At the same time she began to imagine the circumstances under which a seemingly innocuous worker for several British labs doing atomic research could have willingly passed documents and research notes to Russia for use in their own frantic race to develop nuclear weapons – all this without coming to the attention of MI5, the British Security Service until fifty years later. Just as importantly, Rooney also wanted to understand why and how Norwood – or anyone else, for that matter – could betray her own country and be able to live with herself, quietly and comfortably, in the very country whose secrets she had so treacherously revealed.


The result is a thoughtful and provocative novel, not a biography, in which a woman named Joan Stanley leads a life somewhat similar to that of Melita Norwood in its external details, though the author asserts strongly in the Author’s Note that “The differences between the two women…are varied and multiple, and Joan Stanley is not intended to be a representation of Melita Norwood.” Likewise, she says, the fictional character of Sonya Galich, who “controlled” Joan Stanley, is similar in some ways to Melitta Norwood’s friend, Ursula Beurton, also known as Ruth Werner or Ruth Kuczynski, whose code name was also Sonya, though the fictional Sonya Galich is not based on Beurton’s real life. A Russian emigree who worked in England, Ursula Beurton was also the controller of German scientist Klaus Fuchs, who, much like the fictional character of Kierl in the novel, passed information from American, British and Canadian research labs to Russia and was eventually convicted of spying in 1950. Giving further verisimilitude to the narrative, Rooney incorporates additional historical detail to bring the times and the atmosphere at the end of World War II to vibrant life and to provide motivation for the actions taken by some of her characters here.


The novel begins dramatically, in the present, with the ominous death of Sir William Mitchell of the Foreign Office, a man Joan Stanley has known since his early career as a Special Operations Executive during the war, more than sixty years ago. “She knows the cause of death without needing to be told…something irrefutable, to have made him believe it was not worth trying to defend himself and his reputation,” and she wonders if new evidence of her own past has finally surfaced. She is not really surprised when “they come for her later that [Sunday] morning,” and accuse her of twenty-seven breaches of the Official Secrets Act” – treason – announcing that she should say anything she has to say in her own defense between then and Friday, because her name will be released to the House of Commons that day, with all the attendant publicity. She denies any involvement whatsoever, however, then begins musing, privately, about her life when she was eighteen.


Joan Stanley, as a Cambridge university student majoring in physics, is befriended by flamboyant fellow student Sonia Galich almost immediately after her arrival at college, and their fast friendship is enhanced by their shared interest in anti-fascist activities, Sonia through her membership in the communist party and Joan through her innocence and her upbringing as the daughter of a rural preacher who believed that the “government was letting people down,” his own version of socialism. Through Sonya, an emigree orphan from Russia who grew up in Leipzig with her cousin Leo, Joan soon becomes attracted to Leo, believing that she is truly in love with him. Leo introduces her to his political friends, declaring that he is “a socialist, not an anarchist,” and stating, idealistically, that he is looking for proof that the Soviet system works, that “if a society is properly planned and organised there will never be any unemployment. Every person will be able to contribute.”


The novel moves back and forth between the present and the past of the early 1940s, and the reader gradually comes to know all the characters, including Joan’s adopted son Nick, a barrister QC who represents her, determined to prove her innocent of the espionage charges. Joan’s relationship with Sonia, who is much more aggressive about her political commitment and wants Joan to share it, changes with the tides in this novel, as does her relationship with Leo who is constitutionally unable to commit to any relationship, and when Sonia announces that she, Jewish, is planning to go to Switzerland immediately, before the official outbreak of war in England, she tells Joan that she is relying on her to tell her what is happening in England.


Shortly afterward, Joan receives a letter from the Metals Research Facility in Cambridge asking her to appear for an interview with Dr. Max Davis, for whom she must sign a non-disclosure agreement, part of the Official Secrets Act. Joan now realizes that she will be working at a site dedicated to research toward the development of an atomic bomb. How and why that is a turning point in Joan’s relationship with her country become the focus of the rest of the novel. With her relatively straightforward plotting and the revealing back-and-forth of the point of view, the author has plenty of opportunity to develop her characters and their relationships, providing the reader with insights into the extraordinary circumstances which might drive someone to betray his/her country. Ultimately, the novel moves beyond the time and place of the setting to larger questions of one’s overriding obligations to a nation (and the world at large) during times of unprecedented upheaval, forcing the reader to consider his/her own role as a human being and then as a citizen of a particular country.