Red Joan is a novel set in the present, but it is mainly about life in pre-World War II Cambridge, a university town full of wide-eyed, idealistic students who provided a prime hunting ground for people recruiting future Soviet spies. Joan is a young woman who comes to Cambridge University in 1937 to read for a certificate and is drawn by love and circumstances into a communist group. We first meet Joan when she is an eighty-five-year-old widow, mother, and grandmother in the present day. She has the same activities as other people; she ballroom dances and paints once per week in local clubs, and she shops and visits her only son and his family. So we (and she) are surprised when MI5 agents knock on her door and begin to question her about her activities and friends during and after the war.
The narrative skips from present to past with an easy flow as the reader discovers the reasons behind Joan’s decisions, and we may wonder if we would have made the same decisions as Joan. Certainly, the world was a different place in the years of the Cold War, and this book takes us back to that time with wonderful writing and very descriptive passages. I found Red Joan unputdownable as the many twists and turns were revealed. Joan clings loyally to friends, and Joan’s son, a leading QC, finds out that his mum is not a one-dimensional person, but is more complex, with numerous secrets in her life. I loved the book, and found it to be a brilliant spy novel with a difference. I defy anyone who reads the book not to end up rooting for Joan.
- Catherine McGratton