The Long Room – Francesca Kay

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.

 

9 thoughts on “The Long Room – Francesca Kay

  1. I read this before Christmas, and I’ve just spotted the “moth to the flame” picture on the cover (and I thought I was observant!) I rather enjoyed it – although not a huge amount happened, her writing was compelling and really kept you reading. Simon was just a lonely, somewhat obsessive man, with very little in his life. I wondered too if he was set up, as what he was trying to get with his “friend” didn’t seem hugely valuable – unless it was a test? Sorry, I’m trying to be as opaque as possible to keep this spoiler-free! A writer I’d probably read again – it was the spy bit that attracted me to this one – depending on the subject matter of the novel.

    • I thought it was compelling too and I definitely want to read more of her work. I thought he was quite passive with the friend and sort of went along with things when he wasn’t really that bothered. It added to the ambiguity for me.

    • It’s a career that by it’s nature isolates people, unless you have a solid family life and friends who believe you do some civil service job that’s too dull to talk about – I can imagine it’d be easy to invent something like that! But Stephen only really has an ageing mother – he’s the sort of man you wouldn’t notice, so actually ideal spy material!

    • To be honest, Grant, not a lot actually happens. He lies about the things he’s listening to, stays late at work a lot, stalks Helen a bit, makes friends with Alberic and visits his mother. It’s very slow burning but the build-up to the conclusion’s really well done. It’s definitely worth a read.

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