Reviews

'High Dive' Balances the Momentous Event With the Human Experience

Despite the story's smoldering core about the 1984 Brighton Hotel Bombing, Lee concerns himself mostly with the periphery.


High Dive

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 336 pages
Author: Jonathan Lee
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

At the beginning of Orson Welles' classic 1958 film Touch of Evil, a mysterious man in a suit plants a bomb in the trunk of car, which the camera then tracks for three excruciating minutes. Though 180 seconds seems brief, the tension is thick and when the car finally explodes, shock and relief are felt in equal measure. For film students, it’s positive proof of the power that suspense wields over surprise. But compared to the 321 page high-wire act of Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, Welles' three minutes of suspense doesn’t seem all that bad to bear.

High Dive is centered around the 1984 Grand Hotel Bombing, a terrorist attack and assassination attempt on then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet made during the Conservative party conference by the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group which advocates for Northern Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom. Lee concerns himself primarily with three fictional characters, one young IRA member, a manager at the Grand Hotel and his daughter, who works at the hotel, as well.

Despite the story's smoldering core, Lee concerns himself mostly with the periphery. He's a gentle and empathetic writer. When Dan, the IRA member, is working on planting the bomb, it’s approached in a way that almost makes the reader want Dan to succeed, and for this bomb to be wired correctly so that the long delay works properly and it goes off during the Conservative convention. On the other hand, Phillip needs the conference to go well to secure a promotion and maybe send his daughter, Freya, to college, and the reader is sympathetic toward his concerns, as well.

These equal and opposite desires are worked marvelously all throughout High Dive. Lee finds a way to balance what Phillip and Freya want against what Dan wants, despite the uneven proportion of their plights. There's never a moment of doubt regarding why Dan is doing what he’s doing. Relatives of his were killed on Bloody Sunday (in January of 1972, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland who were protesting the internment of over 300 people suspected of being in the IRA) and the British government is not given the benefit of the doubt.

Further, the story allows more senior members of the IRA to make the argument that violence is the only way the British government will ever enact change, and this is not challenged. The religious persecution that Dan and his mother (with whom he lives) suffer compounds, and through his eyes, his actions are, right or wrong, understandable.

Still, Phillip and Freya are not quite living out their dreams, and despite the much lower stakes, their personal problems are given no less weight. Freya, having graduated high school and done well, is unsure if she wants to go to college or not. Her dad is sure that he wants her to go to college, but is unsure how to pay for it. Their politics are not challenged much, though Freya is, at times, prodded into near-action by one of her friends who protests Thatcher. What Lee won’t answer for the reader is perhaps the thorniest question the book brings about: who is it fair to blame?

It's inarguable that the Grand Hotel was complicit in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. It lobbied hard to host her and her party, and when the hotel was selected, it did whatever it could to treat her well. This is, of course, an economically sound thing to do, though its morals are more dubious. Lee does a lot of work to actively tie not only the financial prospects of the hotel to hosting the event, but to Phillips' personal financial success, as well. In one way, this depoliticizes him. Because he has something to gain, his support of Thatcher and her party can be seen as apolitical.

However, it’s also true that support is support, ideological or otherwise, and despite an indifference to politics as an institution, he's actively taking part in supporting and legitimizing the system that has left the residents of Northern Ireland oppressed and desperate. Lee doesn’t go so far as to turn any part of his book into a polemic, but in positioning otherwise innocent and virtuous private citizens as complicit in system, the reader is forced to consider who shares how much of the blame for the bad actions of capitalist democracies.

Still, despite the complicated political climate hanging over the novel, High Dive shines in the smaller moments when, for example, Dan is blowing off steam while gardening, or Freya is flirting and swimming. Perhaps the novel’s best chapter is one that takes place between Phillip and his mother, near the climax of the story. The two of them sit down for dinner, and what unfolds is funny and relatable and heartbreaking in equal measure. It’s emblematic of the control Lee exercises over the flow of the novel, his ability to maintain the suspense without either rushing to the end or feeling like he’s deliberately steering away from the conclusion in order to milk it for a few pages longer.

Lee, in his first novel published stateside, displays an exceptional ability to balance the momentous event with the human experience, digging into what makes his characters tick without losing sight of the outsized consequences of their actions. The prose has just the right tone, and the book hums along at just the right speed. Lee knows which questions to answer and which to leave hanging. It's difficult to write about a historical event so violent and so recent, but High Dive is a hell of a blueprint.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.