When Stephen Donaldson joins the Institute, he anticipates excitement, romance and new status. Instead he gets the tape-recorded conversations of ancient communists and ineffectual revolutionaries, until the day he is assigned a new case: the ultra-secret PHOENIX. Is PHOENIX really working for a foreign power? Stephen hardly cares; it is the voice of the target's wife that mesmerises him.
This is December 1981. Bombs are exploding, a cold war is being raged, another war is just over the horizon and the nation is transfixed by weekly instalments of Brideshead Revisited. Dangerously in love, and lonely, Stephen sets himself up for a vertiginous fall that will forever change his life.
The Long Room by Francesca Kay is published on 7 January 2016 by Faber & Faber, and is the author's third novel.
Stephen lives a lonely and isolated life. Each day is very much like the last; work, eat, sleep; and yet, despite his insular little world, inside his head is full of excitement and adventure, and dreams.
Stephen works for the Institute, sitting in the Long Room with his colleagues, each day is taken up with the conversations of other people. With his headphones clamped firmly to his head, Stephen does not have to take part in the ordinary office banter, or mindless chit-chat, instead he immerses himself in the lives of the people that he listens to. The listeners at the Institute spend their working hours eavesdropping on people of interest; old men who were once active and well-known for their communist dealings. Stephen is expected to trawl through the daily recordings of these telephone conversations and take note of anything that may be suspicious. This is not an exciting job, and Stephen's imagination is the one thing that keeps him from going mad.
When Stephen is assigned a new, top-secret case; listening in on a man only known as PHOENIX, he feels honoured and a little excited, and when he hears the voice of the target's wife Helen, he falls in love. Madly and desperately in love. Stephen's vivid imaginings create a whole personality for Helen, and Stephen is convinced that she is unhappy and mistreated.
Spurred on by his love and concern for Helen, Stephen begins to take risks that he would never have contemplated before he heard her voice. Stephen has always, in the past, towed the line. His colleagues think of him as a quiet, uninteresting man who has little to say to them, but his desperate need to do something for Helen makes him push his own boundaries, until he is very close to the edge.
Understated, gentle and so beautifully constructed; The Long Room is such an incredible read. Slow moving and finely woven, it explores the depths of the imagination and the impact that a voice can have on a life.
Francesca Kay has created a whole world within The Long Room, there's a feeling of the 1950s to this room full of silent listeners, in the days before the world wide web and mobile technology. The darkness of the shuttered room and the secrecy of the work that they do seeps into the story and transports the reader right into the heart of the Institute.
Stephen is a complex character, and the added back story, told from the point of view of his aging mother adds a layer to his character and enables the reader to empathise with him and appreciate why he sometimes acts as he does. His vulnerability and incredible naivety is astonishing, yet believable and the inevitable conclusion is heart-breaking.
Francesca Kay's writing is distinctive and forceful. Her sense of place is impeccable and her characters are carefully created. The Long Room is elegant, sensitive and intelligent. I enjoyed it so very much.
My thanks to Sophie and Hannah at Faber & Faber who sent my copy for review.
Francesca Kay's first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Author's Club First Novel Award and for Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Europe and South Asia Region).
Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
She lives in Oxford