At a time when news reports and political debates call up constant reminders of terrorist threats posed by militant jihadist groups like ISIS, it can be easy to forget that just 30 years ago, there was a lot of terrorist activity arising in a very different part of the world: northern Ireland. Unless you live in Great Britain or Ireland (where there’s been some resurgent IRA activity, especially since 2011), it’s probably been a while since you thought about the bombings and shootings that characterized the activities of some of the various branches of the Irish Republican Army in the second half of the 20th century.
And that’s right where Jonathan Lee takes us in his debut novel, HIGH DIVE. The book opens in 1978 with a tense and brutal initiation rite that tests both the mettle and the morals of young Dan, an IRA recruit from Belfast who is asked to make an impossible choice. Fast forward to 1984, and Dan (who clearly impressed the powers that be) has been asked to put the explosives knowledge he’s gained over the past several years to a serious test. The British Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is scheduled to hold its convention at the Grand Hotel in the seaside town of Brighton, on the south coast of England. Dan’s assignment is to check into the hotel several weeks before the event (and, they’re betting, several weeks before the associated security ramps up) and plant a bomb in a hotel room, with a long lead timer set to go off right before the conference’s signature dinner.
"HIGH DIVE possesses the pacing of a great suspense novel and the emotional depth of a well-developed character study."
All this would be well and good --- it would be pretty straightforward to read the book as an exploration of political divisions, Dan’s motivations, and a steady leadup to the explosion --- except that Lee isn’t satisfied with telling just Dan’s story. Instead, he also takes us deep into the inner lives, complicated desires and rich back stories of “Moose” Finch and his daughter, Freya. Moose is the longtime deputy general manager of the Grand; he’s the one who’s orchestrated Thatcher’s visit, and he’s convinced that a successful event will result in his long-overdue promotion, a deferred realization of his early promise that manifested itself on the athletic fields in his youth but has been pretty much on the skids since then.
Moose blames his current torpor on the fact that he never went to college (well, that and the spectacular failure that was his marriage to Freya’s mother), and he’s determined that Freya won’t make the same mistakes he did. But Freya, who recently has graduated from college and is now working a (supposedly) temporary gig as the front desk receptionist at the Grand, is not so sure college is for her. Even as she sees her high school friends moving away and starting over, she remains conflicted about what she wants out of life. She knows she likes the looks of that lonely young man who checked into the Grand a few weeks before the Conservative conference, and she wants to get to know him better.
HIGH DIVE possesses the pacing of a great suspense novel and the emotional depth of a well-developed character study. In the end, the connection the reader begins to feel with all three primary characters is what propels the suspense further --- the stakes grow even higher when we know and care about the key players involved. Lee’s novel illustrates that the political is personal, and it advocates for the merits of truly seeing the people with whom we interact each day --- both the strangers who pass through our lives and the daily acquaintances, friends and family who can be equally difficult to know and understand.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 25, 2016
- Publication Date: February 7, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Vintage
- ISBN-10: 1101873329
- ISBN-13: 9781101873328