Jonathan Lee’s third novel begins dramatically. In 1978 Dan is driven south across the Irish border, “the crowded grey houses of Protestant Ulster” giving way “to light, to colour”. On a sunny day, the kind “when nothing serious could happen”, he arrives at a secluded bit of farmland to meet IRA commander Dawson McCartland and undergo an initiation into the organisation.
McCartland is a complicated creation, a terrorist leader who looks “like an accountant”, enjoys Shakespeare’s tragedies, and philosophises to Dan about empathy before ordering him to shoot two dogs to prove himself.
The talk of empathy sets the theme. We skip forward to the Grand Hotel in Brighton, as it prepares to host Margaret Thatcher and other senior politicians during the Conservative party’s annual conference in 1984. When Dan checks in, he meets Freya, the 18-year-old receptionist and daughter of Moose, the hotel’s deputy general manager.
Moose is a disappointed man working 70-hour weeks in the hope of being promoted, his office decorated by figurines of high-divers, trophies from his earlier life as an athlete who never made it. He is trying hard to persuade his intelligent daughter to apply to university and avoid making his mistakes, but doesn’t know how to convince her “that unfulfilled ambitions pile up like unopened post and can clutter a person’s life”. His divorced wife lives in America with the man she left him for, and her absence has made Freya lonely and defiant.
History provides the novel’s suspense: we know that in October 1984 an IRA bomb really did go off at the hotel, killing five people. So we know there will be an explosion but not how it will hurt the individuals we come to root for. Lee carefully avoids the tropes of the thriller to focus mostly on the quieter, ordinary stories that occupy his characters.
It is refreshing to read a British novelist who is interested in the unsensational lives of the low-paid. Freya is the star of the book, full of the uncertainness and insolence of youth. The novel’s free-indirect style is at its funniest in her sections: people who tell you to make your own luck “never went on to explain how you might make your own luck and were often wearing, at the time when the advice on luck was dispensed, very unfashionable shoes”. The novel is full of gentle humour: its tones are mostly warm and compassionate.
Dan’s sections are the darkest. He lives with his mother and blames the police for the death of his father, who was hit by a brick during a civil rights rally. We are shown the regular humiliations inflicted on him and his Catholic friends at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “What,” Dan asks, “do you do when the people making the rules aren’t interested in fairness? When they choose who to protect based on religion, race, history?”
McCartland sees Dan as a “distance man”, someone for whom a cause greater than himself is a welcome invitation to surrender agency: “the truth was that on an operation you felt clean of guilt and will. It was day-to-day Belfast life that made you dirty.” His “gift for self-deceit” enables him to plant a bomb with a three-and-a-half-week fuse, to return to his life in Ireland and wait with the reader for it to go off, attempting not to think about the life of the young woman he was drawn to. By laying his story side by side with Freya’s and Moose’s, Lee suggests Dan’s moral compromises are failures of empathy; the novel encourages the reader to imagine both sides of the conflict.
High Dive is a moving and charismatic novel that suffers from some bum notes. The thoughts of the characters meander in ways that aren’t always interesting or revealing and McCartland’s repeated talk of Shakespeare amounts to misdirection. The reader can’t help but think about whether the novel is tragic in a Shakespearean sense, which it isn’t really in style or shape, and no worse for that. It succeeds, through its multiple sympathies and scrupulous empathy, on its own terms.
High Dive, by Jonathan Lee, William Heinemann, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
Luke Brown is author of ‘My Biggest Lie’ (Canongate)