Belfast man Dan checks into the Grand Hotel three weeks before the conference is due to take place, signing in as ‘Roy Walsh’ — the pseudonym used by Patrick Magee, who appears in the novel as Dan’s co-conspirator and who was later convicted of the Brighton Bombing and sentenced to life imprisonment.
At the reception desk, Dan meets Freya, the daughter of the hotel’s deputy general manager Philip ‘Moose’ Finch.
In a thriller, perhaps, the lives of Dan, Freya and Moose would have become intertwined as the story ticked towards its inevitable climax, but Jonathan Lee offers a different kind of story, one in which the everyday concerns, fears and aspirations of its main characters are reflected in one another’s experiences.
Indeed, High Dive is most fascinating in the way Lee compares and contrasts the lives of Belfast-based Dan and his counterparts in Brighton.
Freya, having just left school, is vaguely dissatisfied with her life, chafing under her father’s ambitions for her to go to university, and unwilling to assist her friend Susie in a scheme to disrupt the impending conference by dropping a stink-bomb.
Moose, meanwhile, sees the conference as an opportunity for promotion, the better to improve his and Freya’s lives; as a result of his obsessive attention to detail, his health suffers, and Moose has a heart-attack.
These are very real concerns, of course, but they tend to pale by comparison with Dan’s day-to-day experience of intimidation, oppression and threats of arson attacks by his mainly Protestant neighbours.
Dan is a likeable protagonist even as he goes about constructing his bomb, and it’s hard to argue with the reasons he gives for joining the IRA. Dan wants “to make a difference, long-term. To end the occupation, change people’s minds. To help fix up gutted businesses and protect the Catholic corner shops. To do service to the circumstances of his father’s death and to the fact that two of his brother’s friends, James Joseph Wray and Gerry McKinney, had been killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday.”
Two other characters loom large over the events of the novel, literally and figuratively. Margaret Thatcher provides an ever-present shadow, not only as a potential target for the IRA, but also in the way she has shaped the historical context in Ireland and Britain, including her stance during the hunger-strikes of 1981, the Falklands, and the continuing attrition against the miners.
In a compelling tale, one firmly rooted in the prosaic minutiae of day-to-day life, the reader is constantly invited to consider alternatives to the conventional ways of seeing. Ultimately, Lee’s story suggests that the novel, rather than the history book, is more productive in terms of coming to an accommodation with the past.
“I am interested in fictions of all sorts,” one of the characters tells Freya. “Novels. Poems. Stories. Tales politicians tell. I’ve never found much that’s fruitful in straight-faced facts.”