Levels of Threat
Aeons ago, I went to the House of Commons to listen to my father, a seasoned MP, make a speech to a few of his colleagues lounging on the green banquettes in various states of torpor. I’d never thought of him as the world’s greatest orator, but he carried it all off with authority, if not élan, and I was impressed by the way he seemed so relaxed in such an august and intimidating institution.
A few decades later I was invited to the Strangers’ Gallery by a lobby journalist friend and again, I watched someone make another dullish speech to an almost empty house, only this time I was a bit more grown up and less easily impressed by Pugin’s imposing interiors and the aura of institutional power. Later we ate lunch in a cosy cafeteria, although whether this was in Portcullis House, where the security seems even greater than that of any large airport, or in the Palace of Westminster, I don’t remember. The Houses of Parliament have that effect on you. Not labyrinthine, perhaps, just very, very big and easy to get lost in.
Rowena Macdonald captures this scale beautifully in her latest book, The Threat Level Remains Severe, a witty, dryly observed love story, but also an eloquent lament on the desperation of contemporary metropolitan life and all the painful injustices of romantic interaction that beset millennials today.
Given the novel’s setting and its second half, the reader could be forgiven for thinking this was an elegant piss-take of the ‘beautifully controlled’ Apple Tree Yard, but in a recent interview, the author tells us that she finished the book before she read Louise Doughty’s psychological thriller.
There’s a satisfying edge to Macdonald’s writing. Her style is crisp and economical, yet generous with the sort of detail that makes this book such an utterly engaging read, with enjoyable analogies occurring at the sort of rate that the reader actually wants, rather than their regular, dutiful insertion.
The characterisation, pace and plotting of The Threat Level Remains Severe are superb: I immediately fell in love with Grace, the adorable, delightfully plausible heroine, then out of love with her, then back in again; the two men with whom Grace becomes involved provoke a more complex set of emotions, but these are no less entertaining.
Like Apple Tree Yard, this book explores our capacity for self-deception, though its crucial theme is about a more active type of deception: the falseness with which we present ourselves to others, set against the backdrop of an institution whose even greater lack of transparency is masked only by its self-importance, its architectural grandeur and the centuries of evolving democratic process. 100% my first choice for a recommended summer holiday read: hugely satisfying, page-turning stuff.