I’ve been hoping for a new novel from Francesca Kay for quite some time now. I enjoyed both of her previous books which explore the nature of passion – An Equal Stillness looks at the way in which the prosaic everyday grind of marriage and parenthood can stifle creativity while The Translation of Bones examines religious fervour and the solace it can offer, misguided or otherwise. In some ways The Long Room has similar themes but this time the setting is ‘the Institute’ – or MI5 as we can assume it to be – during the last few weeks of 1981. The Cold War is still quietly raging, Irish terrorism is in full swing and the nation is gripped by Brideshead Revisited fever.
Stephen is a ‘listener’. He listens to tapes of tapped phone calls along with several colleagues in the long room, each attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery be it spoken or unspoken. His department looks after low-risk targets but every so often they’re called in to help others when it appears an operation is about to go off. Just as in any other office, there are after-work drinks to be had or avoided, Christmas parties to attend, presents to buy. Smartly dressed, Oxford-educated Stephen is seen as something of a cut above, an illusion he quietly fosters although his weekends are spent in his cramped childhood home with his mother whose pride and joy he is. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative who’s concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path.
Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. Her writing is quietly low-key, summoning up the mundane life of the listeners. This isn’t the high-octane world of Spooks but very much closer to the truth I imagine. It’s a world where ‘listeners become interpreters of silence’, where ‘boredom is the condition of the listener’. Attachments are formed – Stephen imagines himself growing old with Oberon, his Jamaican target who is much the same age as himself, and worries about Vulcan the ageing communist who lives alone. Stephen’s character is convincingly drawn. His aching loneliness, his painful attempts to disguise his working-class background and his hopelessly romantic obsession with Helen all combine to form a portrait of an outsider at times poignantly so as are the passages in which his mother frets her way around her small world, remembering the golden days of Stephen’s childhood. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession. Well worth the five-year wait.