The Long Room by Francesca Kay: A study in loneliness and obsession

Cover image 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.

18 thoughts on “The Long Room by Francesca Kay: A study in loneliness and obsession”

    1. Yes, although it’s set in the world of espionage it’s very much a study of psychology rather than a nail-biting page-turner. I think you’d like her, Poppy.

    1. She’s well worth your time, Claire. The Long Room was particularly good at evoking that claustrophobic feeling of someone who spends far too much time in their own head.

  1. I enjoyed this too. As you’ve noted, Susan, Kay ratchets up the tension really well and although the end isn’t a surprise I did wonder if it was self-sabotage – no one, especially not an Oxbridge educated spy can’t have been that naive, surely?

    This was the first of Kay’s I’ve read but I am keen to read more. A friend said she’d pay for my copy of An Equal Stillness if I didn’t like it – v.confident!

    1. Ah, always a little wary of discussing the end but I’d say he was capable of it. What an excellent way of getting someone to read a book you love! I’m sure her money’s safe.

  2. Not read anything by Francesca Kaye but this sounds really excellent. Both the story premise and the world in which it is set very much appeal. I don’t actualy like fast paced thrillers that slow burn of dramatic intensity definitely more my thing.

    1. I know you liked Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, Ali, and this complements it very well. I think you’d like it.

  3. Susan, I had completely forgotten about Francesca Kay. How could I? I particularly enjoyed ‘An Equal Stillness’. Thank you for bringing her back to my attention. I must get hold of a copy of this.

    1. Delighted to hear that you’re a fellow Kay fan, Alex. I hope you enjoy this one as much as An Equal Stillness.

  4. I just reviewed The Long Room too! I haven’t read any of Kay’s earlier works, but I’ve added them to my reading list. I agree with everything you’ve said here–it’s a slow burn and Stephen is such an intriguing character, both sympathetic and sinister. Kay’s use of domestic detail reminded me of Highsmith, and there is such a powerful sense of yearning running through every level of the story. My favourite read in a good long while.

    1. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I have to admit that I haven’t read any Highsmith – yawning chasm , I know! I’ve stuck her in a crime pigeonhole so not for me but I need to rethink that. Do you have one you’d recommend to start with?

  5. Pingback: Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016 | A life in books

  6. Pingback: Exposure by Helen Dunmore: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage | A life in books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.