In October 1984, a strong explosive detonated at the Grand Hotel, a Victorian luxury hotel in Brighton, England. The target of the bomb was the entire conservative party conference, including Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher. The Provisional IRA planted the bomb. Five people, including two important party members, were killed in the blast. More than 30 were injured.
Jonthan Lee’s new novel High Dive—his first to be published in the US—imagines the events leading up to that explosion. Lee tells his story from the points of view of three focal characters, and the novel, skips between them as they go about their lives—all while the bomb’s long fuse burns down.
Moose Finch, the middle-aged hotel manager has scored a coup by booking the party conference. If this high-profile booking goes flawlessly he feels sure he’ll be promoted to better things. A once-promising platform diver, his life hasn’t quite worked out as he’d expected, but he wants desperately to shape a better future for his teen daughter, Freya, and this seems like a good first step.
We know the bomb’s coming as we turn his pages—but most of the story’s characters don’t. So we see them struggling, worrying, hoping—all as though they had a future.
Freya, a smart and witty adolescent, is just beginning to seriously consider her future, and in her flirtations and alliances we see the yens and yearnings of someone on the cusp of self-discovery. She works behind the hotel desk and watches the parade of possible lives tramping across the carpet in front of her.
Dan is the IRA man sent to check into the hotel and assemble the bomb. His lot is to rig the explosive and then walk away. But then he finds himself having to endure the ensuing days until the bomb goes off—if it works at all. All the while he frets over his political alliances, his mother’s lot as a Catholic living in a Protestant neighborhood, and that young, funny teen girl behind the hotel desk whose face he can’t quite bring himself to forget.
For me the book was seamlessly engaging, and Lee’s deadpan dialogue was whip-smart. And, in one subtly self-aware moment, Lee even tips his hand about his own most important choice in how to tell his story. His character Moose is fruitlessly in love with a wise and lovely Argentinian, Marina, who works for him at the hotel. In one of her conversations with Moose, she offers us a meta-moment, when she talks about how stories are put together:
“…I was going to do a disaster movie, too. An earthquake in Buenos Aires. But instead of an earthquake happening at the start of the movie, like every other disaster movie, and people fleeing and some dying and others recovering, you know—instead of what would happen at the end.”
She was silent for a moment. “Because sometimes the before is more interesting that the after, no: Heading towards the impact. What is beautiful about the dive? It isn’t the splash, is it?”
It’s a smart way for Lee to talk about his own wise choice as novelist. We know the bomb’s coming as we turn his pages—but most of the story’s characters don’t. So we see them struggling, worrying, hoping—all as though they had a future.
Our secret knowledge illuminates their petty harassments and hopes with an odd and aching beauty. In one slant of light, our dull daily lives don’t amount to much, but lit from another angle they are the world of everything there is.
Borzoi Books/March 2016/$25.95
Paul Buchanan lives and writes in the Los Angeles area.