The Threat Level Remains Severe, by Rowena MacDonald, takes a wry look at life in corporate and political London. Set within the musty Palace of Westminster, its protagonists are lowly office workers looking for fulfilment, both personally and in their careers. Their coming together provides a lighthearted tale overflowing with sardonic humour. It is a contemporary, mocking yet poignant drama set within the supposed corridors of power.
Grace Ambrose has worked as an assistant to Hugo, the chairman of The Economic Scrutiny Committee, for seven years. She was offered the job when she temped at the office following her graduation, while she was trying to decide what she wanted to do next. She still hasn’t quite made that decision. Grace works alongside Rosemary, her senior in rank as well as years. Their jobs are straightforward, undemanding and secure. They are also interminably dull.
Australian go-getter, Brett Beamish, joins the team from the Treasury as an economics specialist. With his carefully cultivated image, business trainee vocabulary and self-satisfied demeanour he is the personification of management cliché. He is portrayed as a shiny package, smug and soulless. He struggles to understand why Grace presents herself as she does when it is not what he believes men will admire. To him, what others think is a vitally important consideration.
Grace mocks Brett’s attempts to modernise their working environment. His breakout area, whiteboard and colour coded desk arrangements are the antithesis of their surrounding wood panelled antiquity. Brett sets out to bond with Grace as team building dictates. Her tepid work ethic is beyond his comprehension.
On Brett’s first day in the office Grace receives an unsolicited email from a stranger. Reuben Swift tells her that she has amazing beauty and her lonely heart soaks up the flattery. Over the coming weeks he writes her poetry, sends her song recordings and photographs, playing to her arty ideals. She is wary but also intrigued. She wants them to meet.
The story progresses as Brett succeeds in bonding the team, they get ejected from a private members club, and fists are wielded on the roof of the palace leading to an arrest. The narrative viewpoint then switches to Reuben. A court case follows. The timeline jumps forward to where the characters end up next.
Although Reuben and Brett appear so different there are marked similarities in their desire to rise above their place in society at birth. Grace has the outward appearance of a left leaning hippy but is as uninspired in her middle class social and political opinions as she is about work. When she complains about the rampant paperwork generated by the workings of a democracy Brett teases that she would prefer a dictatorship:
‘It would be OK if I was the dictator.’
‘Dictatorships are always OK if you’re the dictator. What kind of dictator would you be?’
‘A benevolent one, I expect.’
‘One that insisted on north London liberal values on pain of death?’
I found the first section of this book, a little over half of the story, the most fun. The second provided an alternative viewpoint but felt somewhat far fetched. The court case and denouement wound the story up efficiently. They were easy to read but lacked the delicious humour of the earlier chapters.
This is a reminder of the shallow pretensions many cultivate, how people convince themselves that they are better than their personal concerns allow. The slow grind of politics gave me more faith in the system than media portrays. Grace and Brett are amusing constructs with their ambitions and contradictions.
Entertaining and original, showing life in the capital from a refreshingly honest viewpoint, this is an enjoyable, even if not entirely satisfying, read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aardvark Bureau.
The Threat Level Remains Severe has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.