Red Joan is an excellent novel based on the true story of an octogenarian British woman who was revealed to be the KGB's oldest living British operative. Of course what everyone wanted to know was, why? In the case of real life, the woman was a die-hard Communist true believer, but Jennie Rooney has decided to make her heroine an entirely different person and has crafted from this rich premise a tense and absorbing tale about love and what it means to be loyal.
Rooney alternates the narratives between the past and present, the present being when elderly Joan is brought in for questioning after the sudden death of a fellow spy. She is living a quiet life in England and her son, a successful lawyer, rushes to her aid. He doesn't believe that she could be guilty of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets but as her story unwinds she gradually lets down her guard.
Set starting just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, Joan is not a true believer, but rather an ordinary lower-middle-class girl making her way at Cambridge. She encounters Sonya, a glamorous Russian who takes the mousy Joan under her wing and introduces Joan to her cousin Leo, a magnetic young man with whom Joan becomes infatuated. They become lovers. Leo is a committed Communist and Joan accompanies him to rallies and meetings, and while the philosophy behind Communism is not unappealing to her, she is largely apolitical. What she believes in is Leo, at least until she learns she can't. When war breaks out she is offered the opportunity to work in a lab doing nuclear research. The man who runs this lab is married but in love with Joan; she returns his feelings but is torn. At this point Leo, Sonya and their associate William step up pressure on Joan to spy for them.
Meanwhile in the later timeline, Joan slowly buckles to the pressure to tell what she knows, and has to explain herself to Nick.
I really loved this book. The last few chapters are tense page-turners as Joan's activities lead to consequences she doesn't expect and she has to work her way out of a very tight spot indeed. Joan is an interesting character, an ordinary woman caught up in events and just trying to keep her head above water for much of the book. Then, when the waves crash too high, she has to pick a side. Rooney doesn't exactly convince us that Joan was right, but that what she did made sense for her at the time she did it, for the reasons she did it. Nick is the skeptical reader's stand-in and doesn't understand her, but Rooney shows us the past is another country. The story is more about relationships than politics, the triumph of real love and the power of love to save ourselves, and others.
The readers I would have in mind for Red Joan like literary fiction, British war stories and a good love story, too. For me it was a winner.