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 proponent of the Russian cause. Handsome, erudite Leo pursues Joan, romantically as well as ideologically. Because of her education in science, Joan is hired as 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 value of loyalty to a meaningful life.