Book review: The Long Room

STEPHEN DONALDSON, who works in State surveillance in England in 1981, should have been a writer, according to his adoring but fretful mother, Coralie.

She remembers his vivid imagination when he was a child. Certainly, on the evidence of his performance as a ‘listener,’ transcribing the tapes of a possible traitor whose Battersea flat is bugged, Stephen could have made a better stab at fiction than spying.

His problem is that he is a hopeless romantic who thought his job would be glamorous and exciting. But with its tedious monitoring of old communists and hapless would-be revolutionaries, it offers little other than “a future pushing paper in an insignificant little outpost and nothing to look forward to but an index-linked enhanced pension.”

Because of his loneliness, sparked by feelings of social inferiority, and his fertile imagination, Stephen develops an obsession with the alleged traitor’s wife, Helen. This is based on his voyeuristic impression of her. Helen is feminine, plays the piano, has a gentle beguiling voice and seems to be unhappy in her marriage.

Stephen reflects that at 28, he is older than the Romantic poet, Keats when he died. He develops a sense of urgency about saving Helen and “the prize that he will win outweighs all caution”. And therein lays Stephen’s vulnerability. 

Besotted and given to slyly pitching up in the park across the road from where the object of his desire lives, Stephen’s judgement is obviously seriously impaired. To prevent the case being closed, Stephen goes so far as to invent evidence that Helen’s husband is actually a double agent.

The reader is always a step ahead of Stephen whose brief disastrous friendship with a glaringly obvious spy called Alberic can only be explained as the final act in a deluded life. It’s Kamikaze stuff. On Christmas Eve, the two men embark on a bit of a caper to try and find Helen who is staying at her family home in the countryside for the festivities.

Francesca Kay’s writing style is breath-taking in its encapsulation of a man on the verge of implosion. Stephen’s heightened state of amorous fantasy is conveyed in language that sometimes seems over-the-top. But it serves to mark him out as a man operating on a very different plane to sane people.

He cradles the image of Helen in his heart “hidden like a treasure known only to its owner, like a medallion worn near to the skin, like an icon that cannot be exposed for adoration until the world is sleeping and the solitary worshipper is shielded by the night.”

This grandiosity is tempered by Stephen’s decline, exemplified by his increasing dependence on alcohol. Rather than return to his empty flat, he digs further holes for himself by drinking whisky in pubs close to work that are considered unsuitable for staff of the secretive Institute where he works. There is something seductive about the main pub that Kay describes; it’s a sociable place where worries dissipate as soon as the elixir of the amber spirit warms Stephen’s innards.

As well as being a writer that burrows deep into the psyche of an unhinged character, Kay is also strong on evoking mood through impressionistic descriptions. She writes about Stephen descending in daylight into the Underground Station on his way to Helen’s block of flats. “...but it was already shading to bruise-violet when he got onto the over ground train.”

That sense of encroaching darkness enshrouds Stephen, both literally and metaphorically. Kay is writing about an era when a cold war was being waged. Stephen walks into a devastating war of his own creation.

The Long Room

Francesca Kay

Faber & Faber, £14.99


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