Armchair Book Club: explosive history in Lee’s High Dive

Heather Allen explores an explosive trip back to London in the 1980s in Jonathan Lee's High Dive.

Bombs have recently killed innocent people in Brussels and Paris. We are all left wondering why, and what city might be targeted next. In the 1980s, we also feared news of bombings in Europe but we expected those to be in Belfast or London, and to be quickly claimed as the work of the Irish Republican Army.

One of the IRA’s more infamous bombings rocked the Grand Hotel, a resort on England’s south coast, in a failed attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Grand Hotel, just days before the bomb detonated, is the setting for author Jonathan Lee’s latest novel, High Dive.

The book opens with the backstory of the young bomber. Dan travels to the hotel, and plants a bomb (with a fuse that will detonate almost a week later) in the bathroom of a room on the sixth floor. He’s young and handsome, and catches the eye of hotel receptionist, Freya.

Although she is supposed to report any suspicious activity, Freya frustratingly doesn’t view him as a threat, and is only flattered when he pumps her for information about Thatcher’s upcoming stay at the hotel. Freya transmits helpful details, not because she has the slightest interest in her summer job, but because her father, Moose, is the hotel deputy manager and is coordinating the visit.

Moose becomes the most tragic figure in the book. He was a high school star athlete, a champion on the high dive. But now Moose is a divorced, out-of-shape smoker who never got an education and clings to a faint hope that, with a successful prime ministerial visit, he might get promoted to hotel manager.

In what swerves dangerously close to an overdone metaphor, Moose suffers a minor heart attack soon after attempting a high dive at the pool with his daughter. He, like his hotel, contains a ticking time bomb.

Lee pulls back from these literary excesses at the last moment, and in charming style expands on the inner lives of an assortment of characters working at the hotel. The human interactions of these characters are reminiscent of Arthur Hailey’s 1960s novel, Hotel, which created high drama out of day-to-day resort operations.  Like the plot device needed to ratchet up tension in Hailey’s novel, the personal stories in High Dive may have fallen flat if it weren’t for the bomb ticking in the upstairs bathroom.

Even though I knew an IRA bomb went off in Brighton in 1984, Lee’s artful unravelling of the story had me wondering if in this telling, all might end differently.

Heather Allen is an avid reader and book columnist with the Penticton Western News