An old man hums in Stephen’s ear, and wheezes, sucking deeply on his cigarette; he is chronically short of breath. He has been having trouble with his heating; he cannot get his boiler to stay lit. It has taken several telephone calls and much hanging on the line to secure a visit from a plumber in a fortnight’s time.
28-year-old, Stephen Donaldson is a spy. It’s 1981 and he spends most of his time listening to recordings of telephone calls made by old men who support revolutionary causes but, to Stephen’s mind, are unlikely to pose a threat any more. Only one of the targets Stephen’s tasked with monitoring really appeals to him. It’s a top-secret operation, code-named Phoenix, monitoring someone inside the agency, but that’s not the most interesting thing about it for him, Stephen’s fallen in love with the target’s wife.
It is by magic, Stephen thinks, that this woman’s voice comes straight to him from a room that he has never seen, and catches at his throat, that it stirs in him a yearning that is new, unnameable; a hunger of the heart. It makes her feel so intimately close. It tells him everything about her. And yet, although each time she tells him something new, Stephen knows that he has always known her. From the dawn of time their souls have been entwined and waiting: now hers is calling him.
In the fortnight before Christmas, Stephen will help his arthritic,lonely mother prepare for Christmas Day; work on intelligence indicating a possible IRA bombing; meet in a local pub and strike up a friendship with a man called Alberic, and report to Rollo Buckingham as to his progress with Phoenix.
It’s the latter of these which gives the first indications that a disaster for Stephen might be imminent. When Rollo tells Stephen the investigation’s up for review in under a month ‘and if there is nothing conclusive then the Director will almost certainly decide to revoke the licence’, the narrator tells us:
All right then, Stephen will provide one [a resolution]. He is not prepared to part with Helen for the sake of narrow-minded and prosaic truth. He had though that time was on his side but now he knows it’s not and so he must move fast. And besides, if PHOENIX is a traitor – and there must be some good reason why he is under surveillance – he must obviously be caught.
Initially Stephen suggests nuances in Phoenix’s tone which might indicate an issue but it’s not long before he’s inventing occurrences.
I guessed what might be considered the twist in this novel fairly early on but I’m not sure whether it was conceived as a twist as my apprehension of it playing out ratcheted the tension and had me turning pages watching, horrified, as events unfolded.
Kay raises questions as to how working in intelligence, listening to the same mundane voices and conversations on a daily basis, isolated by headphones, affects someone. Stephen’s unrequited love is clearly a product of his own imagination but there are enough ambiguities in the telling to leave you wondering whether Stephen was always going to slip up or whether he’s been set up. This is a tightly plotted, tense novel that will grip you until the final page.
Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.