Red Joan by Jennie Rooney
You may remember the case of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who passed secrets to the KGB for around 30 years after 1937. She wasn’t uncovered until 1999, but wasn’t prosecuted, dying in 2005, aged 93. Red Joan, Rooney’s 2013 novel was inspired by Norwood’s story (the recent film adaptation directed by Trevor Nunn starred Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson as the older and younger Joan).
Rooney’s excellent novel tells the story of a young woman, Joan Stanley, who is studying science at Cambridge. In 1937 she falls in with a pair of Russian students – the elegant Sonya, and her cousin Leo. Falling in love with Leo means embracing his politics too, and Joan finds that she has sympathy with some aspects, even if she balks at joining the Communist Party. Sonya and Leo will come and go in her life over the coming years and she allows herself to be recruited, rather desperate for more than Leo’s approval, but signs of love from him are few and far between. After the war, she is working for a government scientific department where she has easy access to top secret material which will aid the Russians in their race to achieve their own nuclear weapons. Leo is lost to her and eventually she marries her boss, and emigrates to Australia with their son. Then one day in 2005, years later after she’d returned to the UK, her husband has died and her son Nick is a barrister, the Secret Service come for her.
This novel is full of moral ambiguity and characters whom the reader will have sympathy for. Although you can’t condone her actions, you do come to understand why Joan did what she did, in all of its aspects. The story wore its research well and the period detail is meticulously done, I enjoyed it a lot (but understand that the film is a little underdone with not enough Dench in the mix). (8.5/10)
The Death of an Owl by Paul Torday with Piers Torday
This was Torday’s (he of super debut Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) last book, left unfinished when he died – however, his son, also an author, stepped in to bring us the complete novel. Given our current situation in which we are waiting with bated breath to see who will become the next Prime Minister, this novel turned out to be a rather timely read. It’s a tragi-comic satire on politics, spin, scandal, betrayal and again as above, testing where loyalties lie!
When Charles Fryerne goes up to Oxford to read PPE, and makes the acquaintance of the charismatic Andrew Landford, little does he know that their lives will become inexorably entwined later in their careers. At Oxford, Charles is invited to become a member of the Merlin dining club (a sub-Bullingdon-alike affair) – although he never took the connections it could bring that seriously. Fryerne went on to establish a career as an esteemed Communications expert and strategist in academia, and is recruited to the team of the man who is touted to be the next Prime Minister – yes, Andrew Landford.
They’re en route to Landford’s country retreat one evening when a barn owl flies into the car windscreen. Landford puts the injured bird out of its misery, rather violently. However, barn owls are protected, and Landford has been appointed to a parliamentary committee on wildlife and the countryside. It should be reported – but they don’t. If anyone were to find out that he’d killed an owl, it would be political suicide. A nosy neighbour discovers the owl’s body and goes to the police… It gets more and more twisted from there on, as Landford puts the pressure on everyone around him to hide his action. Fryerne, who of course, regrets having been persuaded not to report the owl’s demise, sees that he will likely be made the scapegoat. Can he avoid his career going down the pan too?
Torday excels in scenarios where ordinary people are put into impossible situations. He engages our sympathies with his protagonist, yet adds a layer of farce to the proceedings that keep us wondering how bad things will actually get before it breaks. The humour makes this satire a great read, but doesn’t let us forget some of the underlying issues – which in this case includes a debate on the character of politicians. How apt, indeed! (9/10)