Like the unnamed narrator of By Blood, who becomes obsessed with a woman whose therapy sessions he happens to overhear, Stephen, with a rather empty life beyond the long room, is particularly vulnerable to making more of his role than he ought. When he’s allocated a case in which the surveillance level is increased from the basic tapped telephone to a bugged room, he convinces himself he’s in love with the target’s wife. His desire to meet her, along with his determination that his supervisor should not prematurely close the case, leads to some risky behaviours, of which fabricating a report “knowing that the truth was unlikely to be helpful” (p97) is only the beginning.
I enjoyed this novel both for its close attention to the often neglected subject of work and for the depiction of a character with invisible vulnerabilities. Stephen makes some extremely dodgy decisions, taking him in the space of a couple of weeks from a humdrum existence to a position of notoriety. The novel stands or falls on the basis of whether the reader can believe in his choices. I was convinced, via both the unusual circumstances of the run-up to Christmas (snow outside, the office party, increased alcohol consumption) and his character, as revealed through his own reminiscences and those of his mother. He’s lived with loss virtually all his life, with the premature death of his twin sister and his father’s exodus from the family. His intelligence (testified by his rise from council house to Oxford University) has generally masked his lack of social capital, but even he has never really acknowledged just how lonely he is.
With a plot as lively as her character that leaves the reader worrying variously for her safety, sanity and morals, Tightrope is about trust, betrayal and compromise, and the peculiar politics of the post-nuclear age. Marian visits a bombed-out Hamburg as a witness in a war-crimes trial. She shocks her colleagues by challenging Bertrand Russell after a speech in which he states that it would be morally preferable to go to war with the USSR before they develop the atom bomb. She endeavours to protect her brother, a physicist, whose methods of satisfying his illegal sexuality has parallels with hers as a spy.
I was a little surprised when she was allocated a clinical psychologist on her return to England (a very rare breed at that time), but subsequent references identified Dr Morgan as a psychiatrist who has developed his listening skills alongside WHR Rivers at Craiglockhart in the First World War. We don’t see much of these sessions which, though reassuring to Marian, don’t prevent her from experiencing a fugue state during which she re-enacts some of her experiences as a spy, her false self seeming more real than reality.
Although I enjoyed the adventure and intrigue, it was the insight into her mental state that most appealed to me, and the inevitable barrier that her unusual experiences impose between her and other people. As she says to a journalist (p89): “You cannot tell anyone what it was like. It wasn’t the stuff of words …”
The Long Room is published tomorrow by Faber and Faber. Tightrope was published in June last year by Little Brown. Thanks to both publishers for providing review copies. If you’d like to delve into the murk of contemporary espionage, see my review of The Laughing Monsters.