Jaine Blackman is gripped by a slow-burning tale of romantic obsession and espionage

There’s something quietly haunting about Oxford novelist Francesca Kay’s story of a man with his ear pressed to the lives of others but not much going on in his own.

Stephen Donaldson joins the Institute, where he anticipates excitement, romance and new status.

Instead, along with the other listeners in the Long Room, he gets tape-recorded conversations of ancient Communists and ineffectual revolutionaries to listen to.

Kay beautifully evokes the atmosphere of the room, which thanks to her descriptive skills seems real enough to smell or reach out and touch.

She gives us a glimpse of a shadowy world of espionage at its most prosaic; where listening for clues to terrorist attacks are punctuated with coffee rounds and secret Santa draws.

It’s set in London in the early 1980s against the backdrop of the cold war and while the nation waits for weekly instalments of Brideshead Revisited on TV, Stephen becomes obsessed with the ultra-secret Phoenix. Or rather, the voice of the target’s wife.

As he becomes more detached from reality, his journey into obsession is detailed in cleverly understated prose.

The pace is slow but the growing tension as we see what Stephen can’t, keeps the book gripping.

There were instances where I wondered whether he could really be so naive and self-deluded but as the overriding sensation was one of wanting to shake him out of his delusions, there’s no doubt the portrayal had a ring of authenticity.

Kay whose, first book An Equal Stillness won the Orange Award for New Writers and second The Translation of the Bones was longlisted for the 2012 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, has come up with another well-crafted and interesting novel with her third.

See this month’s Oxfordshire Limited Edition – free with today’s The Oxford Times – for photographs from Francesca Kay’s launch party for The Long Room, published by Faber & Faber, £7.99.