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What happens to a man who has his ear pressed to the lives of others but not much life of his own? 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 waged, 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.
As beautiful as it is intense, The Long Room is the dazzling new novel from an award-winning writer. With her mastery of the perfect detail, Francesca Kay explores a mind under pressure and the compelling power of imagination.
Kay's latest novel (her third) turns around the impossibility of ever honestly knowing another person, and she delights in subverting our expectations . . . Kay's portrait of Stephen as a hollow man is masterful: the slow accumulation of aberrant actions - barely detectable at first but building to a tidal wave that sweeps all before it - offers a brilliant depiction of how a person can go quietly, invisibly mad . . . The writing is spare and vivid, and Kay's dreary depiction of the early Eighties, with its Wimpy bars and stickily carpeted pubs, is superbly atmospheric.
[Kay] is fascinated by ambiguity, the party wall that cleaves private and public worlds. Her third novel shares the lyricism that distinguished her prize-winning debut, An Equal Stillness, and its successor, The Translation of the Bones, which explores a Marian miracle and the psychology of delusion...Where the novel most succeeds is in its representation of a solipsistic consciousness, searching for a communion beyond communication.
Kay has an evocative way with period and social detail . . . the result is an unexpectedly compelling read that closes in, like a poetic bad dream, towards the all-too-foreseeable end.
Francesca Kay has done her period research ("he sought distractions - food, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on television") and this psychological thriller hinges on a clever idea: Stephen falls in love with a woman from her voice on the taped calls.
Kay's atmospheric novel is partly a portrait of of damage, and her unworldly protagonist a painfully vulnerable figure - which, as he becomes increasingly reckless, makes for some sweaty-palmed reading. When will the game be up? And what exactly is the game anyway? This skillfully calibrated thriller will keep you guessing.
Perhaps it's the time period, possibly it's Kay's elegant classicism, but The Long Room seems like the sort of novel that might have won the Booker around 1981. It says much about the author's acute sensitivity to the minutiae of human behaviour that it wouldn't look out of place in 2016.
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