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It takes imagination and daring to write a comic novel about the IRA’s attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher when she was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, in 1986, attending a conference with most of her cabinet. A bomb went off and five people lost their lives, but not Britain’s Prime Minister’s. The fact is that other serious (almost taboo) subjects have been satirized in the past: the Holocaust, in Martin Amis’s Times Arrow, and slavery in Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson. True, Margaret Thatcher does not conjure up the painfulness that most people have for slavery and the Holocaust. Nor do I believe that the mixture in Jonathan Lee’s High Dive is as successful as it is in those other two works. Still, satire, being satire, has few—if any—limits.
In a note at the end of the novel, Lee clarifies what is fact about the assignation attempt (at least as much as is known, and there is still some dispute about that) and his creation of the imaginary figures who propel his story. As he observes, “There are large gaps in what is known about the bombing of the Grand Hotel and I have tried, over the last few years, to imagine myself into those gaps.” Well said and, indeed, his three imaginary figures are quite convincing. The first is a young man whose name is Dan, who was indoctrinated into the IRA when he was still in his teens. The other two are the supposed Deputy General Manager of the hotel, nicknamed Moose, and his daughter, Freya. Thus, two insiders who supposedly worked at the hotel compete with the outsider, who plants the bomb, for the centrality of the story. The insiders are more convincing. Dan remains a bit of a shadow figure, perhaps as his role requires.
Moose is 45 and separated from his wife. Freya is 18. Moose hopes that if Thatcher’s visit to the hotel is seamless that he will be promoted, moved to a more important hotel. Freya, who works at the front desk, isn’t exactly certain what she wants, but most likely higher education. She’s conflicted about her loyalties, particularly about her father, and for a brief time implies that she will help one of her girlfriends explode a stink bomb while the Prime Minister is at the hotel. That friend explains her reasoning after Freya asks why the prank is so important: “The government? The Prime Minister? The way this country is going? The unemployment and the money wasted on sham wars and the massive divide between rich and poor and all the fancy people in London and then people without any food up north and striking miners and the total lack of interest in trying to soothe the radical tensions in our community, or solve unemployment.” Besides the issue of Northern Ireland, there’s definitely a class war described in the novel, some of which reads as if were a commentary about the United States today.
The comic propels much of the narrative in lots of witty remarks (“Sometime during the last year her mother had lost a personal pronoun”), the novel’s often-irreverent tone, and the glib narrative voice of at least one of the central characters:
Dan. Plus the puns, such as “No man is an Ireland,” which take on new meaning given the political situation involving the IRA’s uprising. Sometimes, the humor is an inserted vignette, with little to do with the plot but, instead, a clever reflection on the speaker. Here’s one particularly goofy incident, involving a dog-sitter, who discovers that the pooch he is dog-sitting for a German couple, unexpectedly lies, and—since he owns no vehicle—he has to take the dog to the pet cemetery by using the subway:
“He was going to put the dog in its custom-made wicker dog basket. But what if the kids wanted to say hi, what if the kids on the Tube tried to pet the dead dog through the bars? That would badly suck. ‘That was my reasoning.’” So he thought he’d better not; a suitcase would be better. “He took the suitcase on the London Underground. At Hammersmith the lift wasn’t working, so he began to lug the dog-filled suitcase up the stairs. An absolutely massive bald guy said, Let me give you a hand with that, son. No, no, I’m fine, John said. But the bald guy insisted: I’ll take it ten steps and then you can take it ten; it’ll be a workout, mate. And then the bald guy took the suitcase and ran off with it.”
I frequently chucked out loud as I read Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, but I didn’t think that the swimming (and the high driving board) metaphor played out through much of the story was that convincing. Moose swims, as does his daughter and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, who narrates the passage about the dead dog. Then there’s the comic juxtaposed to the planning for the bombing of the hotel, and the somewhat elliptical ending that doesn’t tie everything in the narrative together as I would have liked. Still, Lee’s comic voice(s) are often a delight; hopefully, he will write a truly comic novel next time.
Jonathan Lee: High Dive
Knopf, 336 pp., $25.95