Book Review: High Dive
by Jonathan Lee
The organizing central event of Jonathan Lee’s new novel High Dive is the dramatic assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 at the Grand Hotel of the seaside resort of Brigton. In the weeks leading up to the event we readers know is coming, Lee’s narrative follows the lives of a small cast of characters who’ll end up involved.
It’s such a tired conceit, shared with dozens of novels (and, magnificently, Emilo Estevez’s 2006 movie Bobby, where the central event is the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the location is the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles), that it might tempt some readers to discard the book out of hand, but this would be a mistake. Lee is in prime form throughout High Dive; this is a marvelously thoughtful and readable novel.
The small cast of characters includes one of the would-be assassins, one of the Grand’s managers, and a moody teenage girl, but the book almost entirely belongs to that hotel manager, Philip Finch, nicknamed Moose, an affable, slightly flabby ex-athlete who loves his job and loves his daughter Freya, the aforementioned moody teenager. Moose is a wonderful fictional creation, a hapless but well-intentioned man who’s unwilling to let go of some of his younger self’s conceptions:
Possibly he’d have to relax his no-guest rule. There was always someone lonelier than you were. He struggled sometimes to shake the idea that his early life had been all about an excess of sex and a sense of bottled potential, and that these things had, in the rich tradition of life’s droll jokes, been replaced by an absence of sex and a sense of wasted potential.
We follow Moose through the ups and downs of his Grand responsibilities and his family life just long enough so that when he suffers a heart attack early in the book, it’s a harrowing reading experience, not least because Moose is both tightly attached to the diminished joys of his life and disarmingly philosophical about losing them (“There was something acceptable about death, something soft and almost amiable,” he reflects at one point, “until you considered the very specific inconveniences it would bring about”). He comes through his ordeal with a renewed sense of authenticity that’s rather stiltedly poised against the jaundiced cynicism of assassins and politicians alike:
Cynicism and sarcasm were all very well, but only if underwritten by a proper depth of feeling. Irony might be the modern mode, but shouldn’t someone sing the virtues of earnestness? This didn’t mean turning away from the darker aspects of life. It did not mean conspiring to make your days something falsely warm and neat. But it did involve looking closely at the dark stuff, paying attention to its variety of shades, its aliveness, the ridiculous and the terrible, the fart jokes and the tragedies. For to be alive, to be capable of laughter and surprise – this itself was a beautiful thing.
What the plot of High Dive annihilates in terms of narrative tension it amply restores in other aspects, including a good deal more dry humor than the setting might promise. This book is Lee’s US debut and ought to guarantee him a long and much-discussed career here.