Reviewed by Harriet
A gripping story of obsession and spies set in eighties London.
So says the blurb on the back of this truly excellent novel. But this is no ordinary spy story, though it’s as convincing and authentic as any I’ve ever encountered. There are no guns, no globe trotting, no car chases, and only one episode of lurking in a doorway, which though an important part of the plot is not part of the protagonist’s job description. For Stephen Donaldson, a young man in his twenties, has been recruited while at Oxford to join the team at The Institute in London, an organistion which is the nerve centre of operations in the 1980s Cold War. Stephen’s job is to sit at his desk in the Long Room, headphones over his ears, listening to recordings taken from secretly planted bugging devices in the homes of suspected agents.
The subjects of Stephen’s assignments are generally ancient communists or long-ago revolutionaries who, though they have fierce-sounding code names (Odin, Vulcan) are ‘creaking dragons who might once have breathed fire’, and very unlikely to pose any present threat. But Stephen has one other assignment – he is listening to the recordings of one Phoenix, who may or may not be an agent, and who appears to have links to the very organisation that Stephen works for. But soon Stephen hardly cares about what Phoenix gets up to, because he has fallen desperately in love with Phoenix’s wife Helen. Obviously he has never seen her, but he listens daily for her voice and obssesses about her supposed beauty, and her apparent unhappiness in the marriage. Indeed, this soon becomes the entire focus of his life, and the final outcome is disastrous.
So yes, spying gets in there and indeed is central to the plot, but the chief interest in the novel is of course Stephen himself. He is a brilliantly conceived character: an only child of conventional middle-class parents, and raised from the age of four by his adoring mother after his father’s departure, he is I suppose what you’d have to call a mummy’s boy. It’s no exaggeration to say that Coraline’s life revolves entirely around her beloved son, who has remained in her eyes the delicate, skinny baby who she coddled and fed assiduously after the death of his twin at ten days old. Stephen lives in a shabby bedsit during the week, but spends every weekend with his mother. He has a history of falling for remote, unavailable girls, and keeps his distance from his friendly, jolly co-workers, who constantly try to involve him in their social activities. He will sometimes go to the pub with them, but is more likely to go on his own, and to drink more than he knows he ought to.
As the novel progresses, so does Stephen’s obssession with Helen. He listens to her conversations with her husband, who he believes he has identified, is thrown in a fury when he thinks she is being mistreated and is in agonies of jealousy when he hears them making love. He manages to find out where she lives, and hides in a doorway until he sees her coming down the street and entering the doorway of her block of flats. If his feelings needed any intensifying, this does it. His days are only made bearable by being able to listen to her on tape, and his nights are agonising, as he allows his over-romanticised imagination to picture what she might be doing:
It is half past ten. Helen is alone in a bedroom full of flowers and flinging her window wide onto the night. Seizing the chance for which it has been waiting, the wind at once will come storming in to wrap her in its wild embrace. And the moon and stars, struggling vainly to be free of confines of their orbits, can only look on jealously while their rival runs fingers through her hair. But she will brush away the trespasser and, leaning from the window, will look down at the dark expanse of parkland where. Among the dead leaves and the roots of ivy, the small creatures of the night halt their rustlings to lift their beady eyes to her in adoration.
This intense, wholly fictitious romanticism takes a firmer and firmer hold on Stephen, and his working life suffers more and more as a result. In fact it’s not too much to say that he completely loses his grip on reality, breaking every rule of his highly confidential job, and befriending an extremely dodgy foreigner in a pub where the operatives have been warned not to go as it’s frequented by enemy agents. The final part of the novel mixes tragedy and black comedy as Stephen goes chasing off to Suffolk on Christmas eve, his mother’s turkey in the boot of his car, in the hope of somehow finding Helen who is supposedly staying there with her mother. It’s not giving too much away to say that things do not end well.
This is a superbly written novel which I read with huge pleasure. Francesca Kay has brilliantly captured the mind of this poor lonely young man, his fantasies threaded through with his weekly watching of Brideshead Revisited and with snippets of the poetry he studied at Oxford. The Long Room thus manages to be both an intensely literary novel and an exciting drama. I’m really pleased to have had a chance to read it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Francesca Kay, The Long Room (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978057132250, 291pp., hardback.
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