Book Review: Red Joan

Red JoanMany thanks to Lindsey at Random House Canada for the pleasure of Red Joan. One day, I checked the mail to find this gem arrive along with a note from Lindsey saying this was a book she was sure the Hoarders would love. It’s like Lindsey is our BFF and knows everything about us! Hells yes! This was a loved book!

Here’s the short & snappy book trailer for Red Joan:

Red Joan begins when Joan is in her advanced 80s and a knock at the door sends her reeling. She’s always wondered if “they” would have found out.

Following the death of a man named William, someone whom they started questioning but died quickly they now turn their investigation to Joan.  As their questioning about her involvement in supplying British intelligence to Russia continues, the past slowly reveals itself through Joan’s eyes, how her relationship with William, Sonja and Leo grew and exactly what her involvement entailed. The story alternates between present day and the time and events leading up to, including and following the war. What should she reveal? Is she revealing too much, nothing relevant? Does she have even anything relevant to reveal in the first place?

“She must remain strong. She must not let anything slip.”

Red Joan is the story asking: what would it take for one person to do this? to go against her country? against those that she trusted to become a Russian spy? Joan’s son, a prominent lawyer, comes to her defenses at the start of the questioning. Although, as more and more evidence is presented against Joan, her son begins to falter and is incredulous that his mother, the quiet and steady woman he has only known, is quite indeed and possibly guilty in what the MI5 is accusing. Why? How could she have done this?

“It’s too late, she whispers, “They already know.”

As the story slowly provides its evidence, we find that Joan long remains resistant to Leo and his passion for communism and Stalin. But it’s Leo, the man she falls so hopelessly in love with, Leo, the man that is far too casual with Joan’s emotions. So confusing yet has such a hold on her. But, how long can she remain resistant to his plan? And is Leo the only one she should be concerned with? Who can she truly trust?

“Until she has seen it for herself, Joan has no idea quite how much work is involved in belonging to any sort of left-leaning political group. She has no concept of the number of interminable meetings one is obliged to attend, the volume of books which must be read and discussed, argued over, waved aloft and then thrown aside in disgust…She is not prepared for the seriousness that such meetings entail.”

“Tonight the subject is Spain and William is trying to persuade the others that they really ought to go out there and join up with the Republican forces as part of the International Brigade…How childish he sounds, Joan thinks, how dishonest. Here he is, sitting in a room in Cambridge (on the floor, admittedly, but other than that in perfect comfort) with no threat of imminent violence, not a gun to be seen, biscuits being passed around on a plate, and talking as if he is some sort of battle-worn hero.”

Hear hear Joan! You’re giving cheers to Joan when she sees through this group’s lies, but at the same time, what did happen to turn Joan into a spy? If she thought these groups to be nonsense (based on these quotes of her feelings and thoughts) how did she become so deeply involved? Just how long will it take before Joan’s defenses are down and she agrees to what Leo is pressing her to do for him, and for Russia.

It is here as well where Rooney deftly writes about the event that turns Joan. “In one word, she whispers, “Hiroshima.”

What’s the difference? Why does it matter who’s underneath it? She pauses, suddenly aware that she’s heard this argument before, only this time she seems to have changed sides. Although what are the sides now? It no longer seems clear.”

She can’t believe he is disagreeing with her, that they are all disagreeing with her, that they are going to sit in a pub and eat fish and chips to celebrate this terrible destructive force. “

There were many times in the earlier part of the story where it felt like Dreams of Joy by Lisa See – the details about the devastation that “fudging the numbers” surrounding this communist living/collective farming – all to the despair of the people forced to live this way. However, Rooney wrote about Joan seeing through this, questioning this – the critical lens that she used when thinking of how involved and how much about this ideology they championed all the while sitting in a comfortable room in a prestigious educational institution passing around crumpets and cookies. She remains strong in her non-joining and it disrupts her relationship with her beloved Leo.

How should the reader feel about Joan? The reluctant spy? The naïve girl who truly didn’t believe she was “that” kind of spy? A young woman hopelessly in love? A young woman that felt she was sincerely helping a cause she believed in? A young woman duped at every turn by those she trusted? Whatever you feel about Joan, Red Joan is a first rate read and Joan is a first rate character. Bravo for Red Joan. It was a read that had me on the edge of my seat all the time. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? You’re kept fairly in the dark until the pertinent parts are unveiled.

Lindsey was right all along, this was definitely a book the Literary Hoarders were going to love. I know I did!

Here, Jennie Rooney writes of what inspired her to write Red Joan: The Inspiration

Melita Norwood was the real name and inspiration for Joan and you can read her (fascinating) obituary  here.

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