Sometimes part of the pleasure of reading new fiction is coming to it with no preconceived notions or expectations. In the case of “High Dive” I hadn't even read a description of the plot despite it being published at the end of October. It was a book that was sent to me and I decided to plunge in without knowing anything about it. The novel begins with an incredibly chilling scene of a young man named Dan undergoing an initiation for joining the IRA in 1978. Then the story shifts to 1984 with a teenage girl named Freya and her father Philip or “Moose” who is the assistant general manager of The Grand Hotel in Brighton. I felt instantly gripped as I realized I had entered a story leading up to the infamous IRA bombing of the Conservative Party conference. I knew the incident came close to taking Margaret Thatcher's life, but beyond that I had little knowledge or understanding about the history of this attack other than it was a significant incident amidst The Troubles. Jonathan Lee fictionally creates characters surrounding the event including the perpetrator of the bombing who went under the alias Roy Walsh to sympathetically show both sides' stories and the emotional tension and political conflict leading to this horrendous bombing.
Since this is entirely a fictional story set within a historical event, even readers who are familiar with the people involved with the bombing in October 1984 won't know the fates of Lee's primary characters. There is a chilling atmosphere surrounding the otherwise normal and emotionally-engaging story of single father Philip, a one-time Olympic hopeful high diver, who plans to be promoted to full manager of the hotel and his daughter Freya who is struggling to realize who she is and what she wants in life. The father-daughter relationship is particularly poignant when Philip becomes ill and Freya finds herself getting annoyed by his illness. She is conscious that such a reaction is selfish, yet she can’t prevent herself from feeling it and acting out because of it.
Alongside this, Lee writes with great empathy about Irish Dan whose father was killed in a skirmish with police when he was an adolescent and who wants to make a radical change to end British rule in Ireland. He hides his activities from his mother and this secret plays out unspoken between them in a dramatic way. His charismatic and terrifying mentor Dawson eloquently summarizes the power imbalance between the two nations and how they had locked horns in conflict: “History clears away the blood, records the results, but that doesn’t mean the blood wasn’t there. An Ireland occupied by the Brits will never be free. An Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” There is a strong sense that the rhetoric of the time and the history books since haven’t recorded the full extent of the damage and death caused by the English oppression. In vivid, emotional scenes you’re made to feel the anger and outrage of the Irish Republicans and their desperate need to strike back against Thatcher: “Thatcher might govern in her own tight circle but she’s no right to power here, none at all. She’s queen of nothing, and we’ll treat her with the same respect she’s granted us. Let her taste a little bit of equality.” Lee shows the way these boiling tensions might have led to such desperate acts, laying out the battling ideologies at play and how people can justify acts of terror to themselves in order to make a grander statement and force change.
Although rooted in history, this is a novel that speaks very much about familiar issues we deal with today. Deadly political divisions. Wars of terror. Innocent victims. “High Dive” is a heart-wrenching drama that cleverly shows how the intensely personal becomes political and the war to dominate the narrative of history.