In October 1984, a bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, its target Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. Thatcher remained unscathed, but the blast killed five people and injured 34, eventually leading to the arrest and conviction of Irish Republican Army operative Patrick Magee.
This event is the springboard for Jonathan Lee’s excellent High Dive, his first book published in the United States. If we’re lucky, it won’t be the last. High Dive is not only a well-executed suspense novel or political thriller (although it’s both). An editor at the literary journal A Public Space, Lee also takes great care in constructing detailed, empathetic portraits of his characters, investing readers in their fates and adding depth and nuance to his story. He blends fact with fiction, comedy with tragedy, and comes up with a seamless depiction of what happens at the crossroads of ordinary life and history.
High Dive re-imagines the weeks leading up to the explosion through the eyes of three people. Dan, the young Irishman who signs on to help plant the bomb several weeks before it’s set to go off, has been working with the IRA since a trip across the border in 1978 (there was a real-life rumor that Magee had a helper, and Lee takes the idea and expands on it). Dan’s introduction to this world is initially dull — “The car smelt of vinegar from fish and chips and the man had a scarred bald head and two jokes, one about the Brits and the other to do with priests” — then, when he’s asked to prove himself, suddenly shocking. The unnerving first chapter lays the framework for his transformation from disaffected youth to explosives expert, with Lee providing a troubling and yet still compassionate examination of how a terrorist is born. When your options for improving your station are nil, he points out, striking back at forces you believe are limiting you can seem like the only choice.
Like Dan, the Grand Hotel’s deputy manager Moose also views the upcoming Thatcher visit as a chance to prove himself. A diver in his youth, the middle-aged Moose is affable and capable but lacks a solid plan for advancement (this was also true of his diving career, which fizzled before he could advance beyond local hero status). Moose tries to enjoy his work running the hotel: “On days when ambition and regret got the better of him, when lost opportunities stuck to his shoes like bubble gum gone to ground and created ugly slouching strings that halted progress, he told himself that all human life was here.” But he harbors visions of a better future for himself and his daughter Freya.
Freya, though, isn’t sure about she wants. She’s working at the hotel as her friends head off to university, unsure she wants to travel that path herself. She thinks about her estranged mother, who left Moose for an American, but makes no moves to reconnect with her. Her forward momentum has stalled when a young man with an indeterminate accent named Roy Walsh checks in and opens up a world of possibility.
A more conventional novel might have built a romantic subplot between Freya and Dan (who is, of course, Roy Walsh), but Lee is more subtle and imaginative than that. He can be a funny writer: “He looked like the love child of badgers,” Freya thinks, gazing at one of the hotel’s elderly guests. “White whiskery sideburns. Liver spots on his skinny cheeks.” But humor isn’t Lee’s primary concern here. High Dive is a provocative, moving examination of loyalty and ambition and how they shape — and maybe doom — us.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.