Behind every event, there is always a human story waiting to be discovered
Jonathan Lee’s High Dive is an account of the events around the Brighton bombing of 1984, where there was an IRA attempt to blow up the Grand Hotel, where the Tory Party was holding its annual conference. Had the bombing succeeded in its aims, virtually the entire cabinet and the main target, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, would have been killed. The bomb did go off, and five people, none of them the intended targets, were killed and many more were injured, including some who were left permanently disabled. As is so often the case the results of these actions only hardened public attitudes towards Irish people as a whole, creating suspicion and distrust, fostering and deepening prejudice against them
What Lee has done is to focus far less on the real, known people, whether they were the intended targets or the known perpetrator(s). Instead, he has turned his attention to lives of fictional characters who might have been caught up in the events – in particular, those working at the hotel, their friends, family and history. He also takes the fact that whilst one man, Patrick Magee, was found guilty of the bombing and imprisoned, and later released under the Good Friday Agreement, there was also evidence that suggested that there was a second bomber, a person unknown, involved in events. Hill `invents’ that second bomber, and through him examines a possible route to this kind of action.
The subject matter, for a fiction, is a bit of a risky tightrope. How, in an arena where passions and deeply held convictions run high, where there is a deep sense of wrongful actions committed from and by both sides of political and national divides, do you manage to write a novel which does not fall into easy villainisation, demonising the perpetrators of terrible acts carried out in pursuit of what seems (to them) worthwhile ideals. It’s of course remarkably current today, though the causes may differ.
Lee first of all takes (I think) the best decision, that of inventing fictional characters, so that he can imagine inside their heads, hearts and histories, rather than falling into the trap of `fictionalised biography’ and presenting inventions as truths. His three central characters are Moose, Freya and Dan.
`Moose’ Finch is the Deputy General Manager of the Grand Hotel, a divorce, single parent, middle aged man who is realising that the dreams and aspirations of youth are never going to come about. Freya is his dearly loved daughter, late teens, all on the edge of making terrible life mistakes and not achieving her potential (this is Moose’s fear) or, alternatively, finding her own clear way through to lead her own life (if only she can work out what she really wants) Freya is a `casual’ on the reception desk whilst she decides her options – University (this is what Moose wants for her, having passed up that chance for himself) , travel, reconnecting with her estranged academic mother, love, or even searching for and finding any kind of worthwhile world, never mind whether there are oysters in it or not! Or should she not make any active choice at all.
`I have spent money on cheap wisdom. But the best thing I heard? It was free. It was about one of those parties that everyone gets invited to, where the night comes and you don’t want to go, and you want to make an excuse and stay at home…….But for the person whose party it is, it would mean a lot if you went. And my friend said to me that for most of us, for decent people, the choice each day isn’t between doing something good and doing something bad. It’s between doing something good and doing nothing. So, this is my advice, if you ever want it: always go to the party’
The shadowy third focus and viewpoint is that of Dan, also travelling as `Roy Walsh’. Walsh was the pseudonym used by the bomber (or bombers) who had checked into the Grand weeks early, and set a timed bomb behind the panels of the bath of room 629 of the Brighton Grand.
Dare it be said that Lee manages brilliantly to balance a tightrope of making the reader understand all his flawed characters – including Dan. He shows humanity even where we might not want to think it lies. And curiously – and not at all tastelessly, he even manages to find moments of humour, arising out of the frailty of character and aspiration.
And, most of all he writes with assurance and poise, creating a page turning story (even though we kind of know the general outcome), credible characters, and wonderful observations
Everything in the library was brown. The curtains, the carpets, the desk, the library cards. The trousers of the old men who refused to speak in whispers. Everything except the librarian. He was grateful for her freckles, for her shiny apple face, for her green sweater and frizzy burnt-orange hair lifting just a little joy from the dog-eared drabness of the place…..Her nose was dotted with tiny pinhole pores, They made him think of sand and creatures burrowing. Day trips, too. Trips to the Belfast Lough, his father and him, his mother back home cooking