The beautifully crafted and oddly sympathetic High Dive, by Jonathan Lee, is another novel dealing with the lives of terrorists, and of those about to be terrorized, based upon a true story that happened in l984 in Brighton, England.  A cell of IRA terrorists plots to bomb The Grand Hotel, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her entire Cabinet will be staying for a couple of days for a conference/speech.  As in The Association of Small Bombs, the other terrorist-based novel reviewed this month, author Lee lets us into the minds and lives of the characters on both sides of this plot, which was actually realized, though some of the characters in the novel are invented (as a second bomber, based upon Lee’s character Dan, was never located after the real bombing of this hotel).

The novel moves back and forth between the daily lives of those involved in running The Grand Hotel, an elegant old Victorian beach resort catering to a high-end clientele, particularly its manager and his motherless daughter.  Moose, the hotel manager, is a former star athlete in this small English town, so many of the year-round residents remember his heyday as a swimmer/diver/track runner; his days in boarding school are summarized to get a sense of his character and his athletic abilities, as well as his ease with people; running a hotel seems both a come-down from his promise as a promising athlete and also a good fit for employment, and Moose’s ease with both clients and staff are integral parts of the novel. The backstory of how this hotel runs, how Moose manages to parent his highly intelligent but undirected daughter Freya, and Moose’s interaction with key staff members is sheer delight, and thus makes the intended bombing of this hotel (which we readers learn about in the other chapters) that much more poignant. Freya, too, is a fine swimmer/diver, and her one mostly sexual relationship with a lunking hulk of a male staff member is well interwoven into the plot.

Dan, the bombing expert, an electrician in real life, lives in a tiny bungalow in Belfast with his sick, aging mother, who dotes on him; another brother is disabled, and lives in a home for what we now call special needs adults.  Dan appears to be rather normal; we get little sense of his underlying anger or rage, but he volunteers to work with the IRA as a bombing specialist (his “audition” as a terrorist is brilliantly rendered by Lee).  The IRA leader is always nattily dressed, and in his odd way a gentleman: both Lee, in this novel, and Sarahan, in the other novel reviewed, present these terrorists as relatively ordinary guys (though it’s clear that the IRA chief is a very nasty guy). Both novels seem to propose a certain ordinariness about the characters of those about to kill, to wreak havoc on innocent civilians: there’s an odd detachment about those about to make or to detonate bombs. Hannah Arendt’s ultimate description of Adolph Eichmann, in her brilliant “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, where she covered Eichmann’s trial for murdering millions of Jews for The New Yorker, comes to mind reading both these novels: there’s a banality to evil, paraphrasing her words.  Her line’s so well known by now that its chilling effects became much clearer to me by reading both of these novels.

Dan has to check into The Grand Hotel and stay for quite a long time; he flirts with Freya, who’s working the front desk for the summer, and she fantasizes meeting him, having a drink, etc. He tells her that a man will be working with him often in his room: this fact never raises an eyebrow of suspicion (she later wonders if the two men might be having some gay dalliance, only): they are planting the time bomb up there, which is to go off in 24 days. Dan’s occasional comings and goings mean little to anyone except to Freya, who simply wants a flirtation with him. Lee speaks truly brilliantly about how regular people going about their regular business are simply, completely unprepared to assume that someone as ordinary as Dan, for example, might be a terrorist: it’s a disconnect, and Lee drives this point home with real clarity and purpose.

And Lee will take the novel through the bombing itself, with, of course, no bombers actually present, and we are privy to parts of the damage done, to how people may or may not react under such extreme duress; we are also privy to watching her father, Moose, remain heroic in his daily way as he saves a small child from dying in the blast.

And Prime Minister Thatcher is not injured, and goes ahead with her speech, making people like and respect her more, not less, so that the bombing itself has the opposite consequence to that intended (laws of unintended consequence are amongst the most underrated possibilities in human affairs).

All of the secondary or minor characters are beautifully rendered, including Dan’s mother, who is completely aware of what her son’s doing, but cannot stop him, and, after the blast itself, and her own house has been firebombed, she finally breaks down and accuses Dan, who’ll soon be long gone to another country for a “break”, until he’s needed by the IRA chief once again, for another act of terrorism.  So the novel ends, in essence, with Dan going on vacation. It’s a brilliant and clever ending, as it’s so mundane and so unexpected.

I think that the novel featuring the terrorists themselves is going to be a growing genre; in the meantime, Jonathan Lee’s High Dive (the title comes from Moose’s days as a diver) is in the front ranks of this increasing new and horrifyingly fascinating type of contemporary novel.  Writers wouldn’t be writing such novels if these terrorist attacks weren’t so common, and I write this review just days after the hate bombing in Orlando, Florida. What a tragic literary genre to see growing.

–Daniel Brown

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