High Dive: A Novel by Jonathan Lee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 336 pp)

Jonathan Lee is a British writer whose recent fiction has appeared in Tin House, Granta, and Narrative, among other magazines. High Dive is his first novel to be published in the United States. He lives in Brooklyn, where he is an editor at the literary journal A Public Space and a contributing editor for Guernica.

Tick Tick Tick

The ticking time bomb represents a compelling metaphor. If a story opens the door to a timed explosive, the resulting narratives and character development exist in half-life. How much does it really matter when everything explodes?

Some stories establish the time bomb narrative in subtle ways. A pregnancy has 9 months. Layoffs at the end of the quarter. These elements build tension and force characters to make decisions before circumstances make the decision.

On the other end, the more apocalyptic time bombs often work best when they lurk in the margins, the audience aware of the issue but the characters unaware. Game of Thrones utilizes this method well with the threat of the White Walkers and the Night King. The comfortable southern nobility finds such tales to be flights of fancy, forcing Jon Snow into the Alex Jones conspiracy theorist of Westeros. The audience, however, knows what Jon has experienced. The audience can read this impending threat into the drama unfolding in this proverbial game of thrones.

Here, with this supernatural understanding of story dynamics removed from the characters living the story, difficulties emerge. How can the author encourage the audience to care when destruction is just around the corner? The mastery of storytelling in these instances focuses on the ability to create an empathetic and compelling character so that when the bomb does explode, the audience truly cares about what happens in the aftermath of that detonation.

The Brighton Hotel Bombing

In High Dive, Jonathan Lee leverages this device in literal terms. Set in the early 80s, Lee follows a handful of characters in advance of the Brighton Hotel bombing. This historical event details the Irish Republican Army’s attempt at assassinating Margaret Thatcher.

Told in three points of view, the audience feels the tension as the installed bomb waits for its target over the course of a month.

The IRA

Within this triptych, we see and empathize with Dan, a solider and bomb maker in the IRA.

“Guns. A lot of the boys he knew wanted to join the Provos so that they could play with guns. Whereas his own reasons for wanting to join were … What were his reasons? 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” (11).

Under a pseudonym, Dan finds lodging at the hotel and installs the bomb in a bathroom, meanwhile befriending Freya, the receptionist at the front desk.

The Ingénue

Freya, the second point of view, enters a crossroads. Her dad, Moose, urging her to go to University, but she struggles to reconcile the dissolution of her family and the absence of her mother. Freya recedes from reality with her first boyfriend, Surfer John, another employee at the hotel.

The typical teenager, Freya debates the meaning of her relationship and how far she’s willing to go:

“On the bed she was trying to decide if it was worse at this stage to risk being called a slut or risk being called a tease. She wished there was some safe position in between those two bald judgements where a person could simply be” (198).

Even more, though her friend Susie suggests she join the protesters for the Iron Lady’s visit, Freya realizes this event means the world to her father and his chance at earning a promotion to general manager.

The Diver

And so Moose, Freya’s father, represents the final point of view. A halfway tragic character, the readers empathizes with the lost chances in Moose’s life. An accomplished diver, Moose uproots his family to New York so he can teach diving. This occupational decision creates the unresolvable rift in his marriage:

“’I’m so sorry,’ she said. She’d felt ignored for years, she said. She was married to a man who preferred to spend all his time trying to make a living out of failing into water. A man who was content to fall and fall. Falling from three storeys high! Teaching others to fall! They’d never make enough money for Freya from that” (188).

And so, Moose views the hosting of Margaret Thatcher as the opportunity to right a life forever wronged, to illustrate how his focus on building a career will repair the shatters of his life.

But, let’s not forget the ticking time bomb.

Jonathan Lee does well to build believable characters but the bomb-as-narrative-device forces the reader to experience these character developments with ratcheting tension as the explosion draws near. As such, the bomb distracts as much as it ought to bring focus. A minor complaint on the whole, but an interesting experience for the readers as they explore the depth of character in High Dive.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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