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 her new novel, 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.