Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Review: THE LONG ROOM, by Francesca Kay
Francesca Kay won the Orange Award for New Writers for her The Translation of the Bones; now she's back with a sad and suspenseful story of a empty man manipulated by his delusional love for a woman he doesn't know into the betrayal of a lifetime.
It's 1981 and we're in London; IRA bombings and the Cold War are what's for dinner in British intelligence and Stephen Donaldson is in his late 20s, a "listener" whose job it is to monitor and transcribe surveillance recordings of subjects of various kinds. Stephen lives alone and is the only surviving child of a controlling single mother. His workplace, the "long room" of the title, is the center of his life when a woman named Helen comes across the wires, wife of a subject known only as "Phoenix." Stephen is besotted with this woman and her voice, and constructs a fantasy life which takes root gradually and ultimately leads to his downfall.
I was hoping for a white-hot thriller when I picked up The Long Room but what Kay delivers is more on the order of a slow-burn tragedy. It is impossible to put down but not in a heart-racing way. It's just that once you get enmeshed in Stephen's growing delusions you'll want to see it through and into what lies beyond.
He starts breaking little rules, like visiting an out-of-bounds pub, and not so little rules, like finding out who "Phoenix" really is. Then things escalate before he even knows it. A man named Alberic befriends Stephen and the association seems harmless enough- just a guy to talk to at the pub. Is there something more? Christmas is coming and with it parties and of course his mother depends on him. His infatuation effects how Stephen handles all of his obligations, and profoundly distorts his judgement until little by little there is no going back.
I enjoyed The Long Room and I'd recommend it for literary fiction readers who maybe want to dip a toe in the spy genre. Not having read a lot of spy thrillers I don't know how it compares to others but I like it as a character study of a sad, lonely man and the bad choices he makes even though he knows better. It's a sharp study of what happens in the grips of a delusion.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Tin House Books as part of their Galley Club program.