I have been a fan of Jennie Rooney's since I read her first novel Inside the Whale (post here), and then her second, The Opposite of Falling, which is every bit as good. Now with her third book she confirms her place as a writer to watch, one whose talent extends from her storytelling skills to her dexterity with detail and to her mastery of the subjects - often complex or multi-faceted - with which her novels are concerned.
Her latest book is Red Joan, as gripping as it is thought-provoking, its narrative expertly shaped, its characters as plausible in terms of their weaknesses as for their strengths.
It is the story of Joan Stanley, a grandmother now in her eighties who has lived - for the past fifty years - an unremarkable life. But she is visited one morning by members of the security services, and in the five days of questioning which ensue, it is clear that the secrets she has kept for so long are now to be made public, and in a very big way. Relating what happened to her in Cambridge in the 1930s and '40s, both to the MI5 officers and to her increasingly incredulous QC son, Nick, Joan relives a past which saw an impressionable and idealistic girl fall under the spell of two Russian-born cousins, charismatic and manipulative both, and then for a physicist whose work was of the highest priority and of world-changing significance. Drawn into a dangerous game of espionage, Joan's motives were noble enough, but did she fully understand the consequences of her actions?
Inspired by the story of Melita Norwood, "The Spy who came in from the Co-op", the book borrows elements of that by way of background, but where it differs and diverges is in its clever use of shifting loyalties and moral imperatives, and of how emotion can colour ethics like pigment clouding clear water.