I read this while on holiday – despite it being a hardback! I was really looking forward to reading it after seeing a review in the paper. Rooney was inspired to write this novel a few years ago, when she read about an elderly British lady who was finally revealed as having been a communist spy, who had passed information to Russia during the Second World War. The book opens with a quote from this remarkable lady: “I thought I’d gotten away with it.”
Joan is an unusual young woman in the 1930s – academically gifted, she leaves home to attend university as a Natural Sciences student, much to the admiration of her father but the disapproval of her mother (who would rather prepare her university trousseau than buy her textbooks). Full of hope and excitement about her studies, though under pressure in a male-dominated environment, she makes friends with the enigmatic, beautiful Sonia and her revolutionary cousin Leo. These two people will ultimately shape the rest of her life – and even affect the outcome of war.
The writing was tense and pacy, and the characters were believable. I found the protagonist Joan likeable, but rather naive at times. I wondered if this was a character trait or more of a plot ploy to allow the author to spin out the denouement a little longer! I enjoyed the evocation of the Oxbridge atmosphere in the 30s/40s and seeing the tensions played out in the present day, as the characters struggled to deal with the fallout of the accusations.
Jennie Rooney went on to read more books about real female spies during the war – so I am too! I’ve just requested a book about Princess Khan, who received the George Cross in the Second World War : “Spy Princess, the life of Noor Inayat Khan” by Shrabani Basu.