A highly entertaining read
Philip “Moose” Finch was once on top of the world, the ‘Best Young Sportsman Brighton’s Ever Seen.’ People expected big things from him. But by middle age, he is working as a hotel deputy general manager, a career his youthful self would have found unimaginable, laughable. At 45, his prospects fall further right when he needs his health most: he suffers a heart attack as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is preparing to stay at his hotel for an important conference.
His heart attack punctuates a slow, dreamlike “High Dive” into a local pool, a perfectly executed callback to his glory days as a star athlete. Time slows down for Moose and for the reader in the moments before and during his jump. He feels “held by no ties at all, everything hushed and hesitant as it is before an accident.”
“Sparks of water flew up. The surface healed.”
The dive, or the idea of falling, serves as the novel’s central motif. But it also serves as its structure: the Brighton Hotel Bombing, an assassination attempt against Margaret Thatcher by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in October of 1984, is the splash at the end of the book’s dive. It has long been rumored that Patrick Magee, who planted the bomb, did not operate alone, and Lee deftly uses this idea as the springboard for his whole plot.
Dan is a young frustrated IRA volunteer and the missing accomplice. For Dan and his friends, Thatcher is unambiguously evil and incapable of empathy, and they routinely justify to themselves the fairness of their violent mission against her. Dan is not merely a murderous psychopath either; he lives with and cares for his lonely mother, and comes from a family that has endured acute hardship. The tragic Moose’s heart problems are not only literal but also figurative: he lives alone with his young daughter Freya and dreams of using Thatcher’s appearance to bring fame to the hotel and escape a taxing life. Thatcher is continually remade into whoever the characters’ lives need her to be. Margaret Thatcher, the target, never appears in the story as a real character, only as an idea.
The book is tightly wound around an explosion, though it takes place by the sleepy and scenic seaside of Brighton, England. From behind the reception desk Freya observes the beach and the beach-goers for long periods of time, the novel celebrating the mundane details. She routinely consults the hotel staff’s sardonic “TOP FIVE LIES TODAY” list: “Of course I remember you, Mr. Norton. It’s really great to see you again.” She silently mocks at length the array of characters that frequent the shadowy hotel lobby. Lee highlights this interiority on the eve of tragedy, as violence like the bombing proves to be an interruption of the most personal kind. Though the impending explosion is the novel’s underlying means of suspense, as with Moose’s dive, time slows down. The novel uses the time to explore the people the explosion will affect, their problems and their aspirations, not the facts of the explosion itself.
The tragedies in this novel are all harsh interruptions. In shock after his heart attack, Moose reflects that tragedy is “as crazy as thinking life itself would one day stop shaping itself, however crudely, around his needs and wants.” Lee’s metaphoric prose, too, mirrors the awkward, abrupt nature of violence. The novel’s final line is an off-topic, solemn detail: “In the dark bar area a stranger stood up and bumped into a table, then a chair.”
All of this amounts to a portrait of the bombing that cuts through political interpretations or historical accounts. While it is certainly a story of working class grief, it does not provide political solutions, just messy human perspectives. The inexorable march toward the blast at the end of the novel seemingly paralyzes each character, as if they are all forced to play their routine, respective roles in this historical event. Jonathan Lee’s endlessly detailed story of frustrated ambitions defies any single, fair, neat interpretation of this violence.
PC: Maggie Bautista