Book review: The Long Room by Francesca Kay

The Long Room byFrancesca Kay
The Long Room byFrancesca Kay
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In the winter of 1981, Margaret Thatcher is in Downing Street, IRA bombs are exploding, the cold war still rages… and Britain’s spy surveillance is on constant alert.

But deep in the heart of a dimly lit ‘listening’ room in central London, one lonely, middle-class state snooper is nurturing a dangerous obsession that risks national security and will change the course of his life forever.

In her third remarkable novel, award-winning author Francesca Kay focuses her eagle eye and analytic brain on the gripping story of a weak, insular state agent who falls for the wife of one of his targets… with disastrous results.

Extraordinarily detailed and unforgettably powerful in its exploration of a mind manipulated by its own wishful imaginings and increasingly removed from reality, The Long Room is both a brilliant page-turner and a psychological tour-de-force.

Stephen Donaldson is regarded as the ‘outsider’ in the long room where eight ‘listeners’ sit at their desks, headphones clamped to their ears, ‘entombed in hermetic silence.’ Their job is to transcribe the phone-taped conversations of ageing revolutionaries and superannuated communists who might – or might not – be a threat.

Despite their belligerent coded case names, Vulcan, Odin and Oberon, his targets are ‘creaking dragons who might once have breathed fire’ but now seldom offer the possibilities of drama.

Their lives are generally sad and lonely, much the same as Stephen’s. An only child and classic mummy’s boy, he lives alone in a cold, cheerless flat in East Acton and travels to Didcot every weekend to stay with his widowed Catholic mother Coralie whose endless shopping lists are the ‘rosary beads’ of her week.

But then Stephen is assigned a new case… tracking the ultra-secret Phoenix. Is Phoenix a mole and is he working for a foreign power? Problem is that by now Stephen hardly cares because he has fallen madly love in with Helen, the wife of one of his targets. Helen’s voice stirs in him a yearning that is new for a man isolated from the social humdrum of everyday life… ‘a hunger of the heart.’

Mesmerised by a woman he has never seen or met, and convinced that her ‘story’ is a story in which he himself physically belongs, Stephen makes a series of catastrophic misjudgements and deliberate falsifications that will imperil both himself and his country.

The Long Room turns the traditional espionage thriller on its head as the author explores how far one man’s vulnerability and isolation can feed his imagination and impact on his powers of rational thinking.

Always one step ahead of Stephen, readers are allowed to get under his skin as Kay uses both the man and his mother as a means of exposing the insecurities, frailties and disconnections that have turned a promising Oxford graduate into a misguided, dangerous fantasist.

This is a story written with a gentle hand, an unexpected beauty and an enhanced sensitivity as it moves inexorably and inevitably to a conclusion that is as heartbreaking as it is calamitous.

A dazzling novel from a talented writer…

(Faber, hardback, £14.99)