HIGH DIVE, by Jonathan Lee. Alfred A. Knopf, 321 pp., $26.95.
Dan, one of the central characters in “High Dive,” the intermittently wonderful novel by the English writer Jonathan Lee, is a bomb maker for the IRA. Early on, he considers the kind of bomb it would take to level a hotel where Margaret Thatcher is going to be staying. His mind narrows into the technical: a slab of explosives; a certain timer; two types of ohm resistor; a PNP transistor. “A poetry even to the grimmest of things,” Lee writes, at the end of this careful catalog. “Everything given its beautiful due.”
“High Dive” is a novel rife with noticing, rife with acuities. Its story follows those bombing materials to that seaside hotel, in Brighton, England, 1984 — but its real purpose is to describe, in the novelistic mode that began in earnest with Flaubert, and has descended through James and Updike to writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Lydia Davis. Bomb makers, in their lingering, evenhanded, bloodlessly observant way: Everything given its beautiful due.
This high neutral style allows Lee to venture with equal assurance into three very different lives. The first is Dan’s, which is defined by Catholic radicalism and police oppression. The second is that of Moose, the gentle, lonely, hardworking manager in charge of the hotel where Dan means to target Thatcher. The third belongs to Moose’s teenage daughter, Freya, picking up some shifts at the hotel’s reception desk as she decides whether or not to go to university.
Lee is powerfully intelligent, and the attention he brings to each of these characters puts “High Dive” beyond the run of the average novel. It’s a book with virtuosity shot through many scenes: there is the “clean, tense neatness” of a hospital, for instance, or Moose’s casually heartbreaking sense that “the best thing about smoking was that people like Marina sometimes asked you for a light,” or Freya’s job, which is to sit at a desk “without falling asleep or killing anyone, in particular herself or a customer,” a line that perfectly captures that age when your inner life so far outpaces your station in the world. Lee is a wonderful writer; “High Dive” a novel with extraordinary qualities.
The trouble is that, however much you might will yourself to, you don’t fall in love with qualities. It takes the whole person — and I could only ever fall in like with “High Dive.”
There are two principal reasons for that, and both are the pitfalls of this particular brand of cool realism. The first is that Lee has written a largely static book, whose method of close scrutiny can make for ponderous reading. An early description of the hotel’s inner workings lasts around 55 pages, when it might have been 20. In a thriller writer’s hands it would have been two. Speed isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, either, and just when Lee’s plot lines ought to converge and accelerate, at the moment of Thatcher’s arrival at the Grand Hotel, they slow further still.
The second failing of “High Dive” is its guardedness. Lee has a welcome desire to search out shades of emotion — in Freya, for instance, he finds the boredom and excitement and impulsiveness and goodness of late adolescence. But the balance and wryness he brings to that search often read as dispassion, until it can seem lab-made, intellectual. Dan is the most serious failure here: fathomable, a novelist’s terrorist, full of contemplation, not rage, not evil.
What’s heartening is that these are both, plotting and tone, technical rather than aesthetic difficulties. There’s no question that a writer of Lee’s gifts is going to produce a great work of fiction one day. Probably soon. In my favorite scene in “High Dive,” Moose, whose dream is that the Tory conference will earn him a promotion, sneaks into an empty guest room to have a nap. “He lay on the carpet so he wouldn’t crease the sheets,” Lee writes. “His reveries had no right to unmake such a beautiful bed.”
That is so human, and so sad. “High Dive” is based on true events, and its prime movers, the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, left huge marks on the world — unmade every bed, for better or worse. Lee’s watchful, tender book wants us to look at the people who leave the world unmarked. Moose, a former diver and now essentially a servant, has spent his whole life hoping to leave no trace upon the water, no splash. “High Dive,” in its best moments, refuses that desire, giving the nameless good their own beautiful due.