Joan Stanley is an 85-year-old grandmother living in south-east London. One morning she reluctantly answers the door to find that government officials have come to question her about her past.
The dual-time narrative structure of the novel is employed very effectively here, with the elderly Joan recounting her story to the MI5 operatives so that we move from the present to the past and back again alongside her.
In 1937 Joan Robson was a student at Cambridge, where she meets and befriends the glamorous Sonya Galich and her cousin Leo. Joan's friendship with them will shape her life: they are supporters of communism, and Joan gradually becomes involved with their way of thinking. When the Second World War begins, Joan is recruited to work with scientists in a laboratory on the ‘Tube Alloys’ project – developing an atomic weapon. Over the coming years, as old friends leave and re-enter her life and the war comes to a close with events she had hoped never to see, her character and her loyalties will be severely tested.
This spy novel, which spans the period from the late 1930s to the time of the Cold War was inspired by a true story of a British spy who was unmasked after many years as having worked for the Soviets. Red Joan boasts a gripping narrative and a compelling lead character: the intrigue increases throughout and the plot progression, especially as the story picks up pace, is fascinating. Joan is at once an intelligent yet naïve character as a woman working in a scientific field, pursuing studies and a career despite her mothers wishes, falling in love and learning for the first time yet fraught at the situation she finds herself in – torn between loyalty to her country and the deep need to do what she feels is right. We see her grow convincingly as she learns from what has happened in her life.
Red Joan is an absorbing and accomplished novel and impels us to ask: ‘Where does responsibility begin, and where does it end?’