Friday, 31 May 2013

Book Review: Red Joan

Red Joan
Author: Jennie Roonie
Published: May 2013, Doubleday Canada

Publisher Synopsis:

Joan’s voice is almost a whisper. ‘Nobody talked about what they did during the war. We all knew we weren’t allowed to.’

Joan Stanley has a secret.  For fifty years she has been a loving mother, a doting grandmother and an occasional visitor to ballroom dancing and watercolour classes. Then one sunlit spring morning there is a knock on the door.

My Review:

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

An older widow who loves her art and ballroom dancing classes, Joan Stanley stands accused by MI5 of passing government secrets to the USSR during the latter part of the Second World War and the years following. Joan's character is loosely based on Melita Norwood, who, at the age of 87, was identified as the most significant and longest-serving British KGB spy of the Cold War period. Roonie, in her author's note, however, makes it clear that the similarities between the two women begins and ends there.

Being a history lover (and a former history student), I was excited at the prospect of a historically-based spy novel. While my expectations were for thrills and excitement, I was met with a character-driven novel based on the twists and turns of inter-personal relationships: love and loyalty, collusion and betrayal. I was not, however AT ALL disappointed.

It was a pleasure to read a novel that was so expertly written-- one of the most tidily written books I have ever read.

The book switches back and forth between Joan's recollections of the past and the developing interrogation of the present. While some might take issue with the author's use of the present tense, even when switching to events of the past, I found it actually made for an interesting choice because while the novel is written in the third person, the use of the present tense still allowed me to feel like I was hearing and feeling Joan's thoughts and living through the experiences as she was re-living them.

Joan, herself is such an interesting character, but also one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. She is incredibly intelligent, but also horribly naive and manipulable. There were moments when I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and give her a good shake.

This would make a fantastic book club/discussion group read. There are so many questions to be asked and so many moral and ethical dilemmas to be considered. Red Joan MAKES you think without FORCING you to think.

It will make you go, "hmmm?" It will make you chuckle with it's tongue-in-cheek humor. And it might just break your heart just a little bit.

Rating: 4 out of 5- but only because I felt like the end could have been a little cleaner.

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