ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: The Long Room by Francesca Kay

Review published on December 2, 2015.

This is a new author to me although she has been steadily building a reputation since her debut – An Equal Stillness – which won the Orange Award for New Writers 2009 and was a Recommended Read in nb53 back in Sept 09 (I was swamped with other reading at the time!). The Translation of the Bones duly followed in 2012 and was long listed for the Orange Prize that year. Now, after moving from W&N to Faber, The Long Room looks set to lift her even higher.

It’s December 1981 and London is under threat. In the Long Room – think GCHQ 34 years ago – Stephen Donaldson is a ‘listener’. Technically a spy – but nowhere near James Bond level – his is a lonely life with little to look forward to and it comes as something of a shock to learn he is only 28. Assigned to listen to a ‘disloyal’ member of staff takes him away from Helen, a teacher married to Jamie, a person under investigation for reasons unknown. Stephen is falling slowly and inexorably in love with Helen – truly unrequited as she knows nothing of his existence. Matters progress, albeit clandestinely as The Institute extends its ‘security’ to its staff as well as the many and varied subjects under surveillance. This isn’t the career that Stephen expected but the strong impression builds that if he opted to leave then he would become a surveillance target himself.

This may not look like a book cover that says, ‘Pick me up’ but for me it is truly ingenious. It perfectly reflected the feelings the story engendered in me. Dark on the edges but with a blurred light being shone where it was least comfortable. Nothing is clear, are these moths, butterflies, flower petals? This is le Carré’s Smiley with a dash of Len Deighton. That the writing made such an impression on me is obvious and I remain slightly unsettled.

I’m writing this on the day the government is to vote on whether to bomb Syria and can’t help thinking, if one tenth of what is described in The Long Room is based on fact – and there seems no reason to believe otherwise – then how much more are our security services ‘hearing’ now?

Guy Pringle
Personal 3
Group 3

PS I delayed looking Berwyn Peet’s review of The Long Room until I’d finished my own summary and can only concur with her assessment.

The Long Room by Francesca Kay
Faber hbk Jan 2016

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