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'High Dive' reimagines the IRA plot to assassinate Margaret Thatcher

Based on the true story of a 1984 crime, Jonathan Lee's debut novel follows the young IRA recruit assigned to the deadly mission.

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    High Dive
    By Jonathan Lee
    Knopf Doubleday
    336 pp.
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The decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was a bloody, squalid affair that happened just a train ride away from my homeplace outside Dublin. We were its spectators, rarely its victims. At the height of the violence in the 1970s and ’80s, the nightly news brought us images of outlandish carnage: bombings, torture, killings, and dismemberment, roiling inside a picturesque province with a tiny population. That insular place spawned, for the most part, intimate atrocities.

And the fiction mirroring that reality is typically claustrophobic: Ben Kiely’s peerless story "Proxopera," for example, Seamus Deane’s "Reading in the Dark," Eoin McNamee’s "Resurrection Man," Bernard MacLaverty’s "Cal," Louise Dean’s "This Human Season," and straightforward thrillers like Gerald Seymour’s "Harry’s Game." In his new novel, High Dive, the British writer Jonathan Lee widens the lens to focus on one of the most audacious crimes of the Troubles, the IRA’s attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on her home turf. (Because, as one killer explains, “you don’t get an enemy to listen by shouting loudly from afar, you do it by whispering in their ear.”)

The historical facts hardly need dramatizing. On September 15, 1984, Patrick Magee, an IRA explosives expert, checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, and installed a powerful bomb behind a bathroom panel. The device was set to explode on October 12th, the final day of the Conservative Party conference, when Mrs. Thatcher would be in residence. It did, killing five people and injuring 30 others, disabling some for life. The prime minister survived, her Iron Lady reputation burnished, and the IRA issued its now-famous warning: “We have only to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Around this spectacle – which is the novel’s culmination — Lee constructs a taut narrative that shuttles between Belfast and Brighton and takes us inside the lives of three main characters: a young IRA bomber, the Grand Hotel’s manager, and the manager’s teenage daughter. The confusions of youth, the disillusionments of middle age, love and regret, are all neatly stitched into the thriller’s tight weave.

We meet 18-year-old Dan in 1978 at his initiation into the IRA. “He could draw a map from memory, replace a tire without a jack, run a decent hundred yards.” But can he kill? A nice Belfast boy who lives with his widowed mother, Dan passes the gruesome test. From that moment on, menace and dread leach into every page as Lee sets his characters on a fatally intersecting course.

Six years after joining the IRA, Dan, now an electrician, travels to England and checks into the Grand Hotel. “He was carrying two sports bags, one on each shoulder,” Freya, the manager’s daughter, notices. “He was wearing a good leather jacket. It seemed a little heavy for the weather.” This passing encounter, early in the novel, vibrates with tension. We know what Dan’s bags contain, we know how many days are left.

As the timer ticks away, we also get to know Freya Finch and her father, unfortunately nicknamed Moose, once a champion high diver but now a divorced manager overseeing “the careful choreography of guest experiences, the perfect neatness of the rooms and the attractive symmetry of the meals.” The Finches’ bond – fragile yet enduring – constitutes the novel’s emotional core and its light relief. This is also where Lee seems most at home. His Brighton chapters display both his comic agility and his keen eye for the mundane yet theatrical details that preoccupy Moose Finch. As the prime minister’s visit looms, the draping of a towel or the angle of a pillow becomes as critical to Finch as the splicing of a wire or the placing of a detonator is to Dan. The synchronicity is oddly unnerving.

The novel’s Belfast scenes, by contrast, seem like set pieces – the riot, the police raid, the arson attack – and Lee has drawn criticism for getting some important details wrong. Certainly, his IRA commanders have a weakness for Celtic philosophizing, while the Royal Ulster Constabulary behaves like the SS. But it is Dan who holds our attention and frays our nerves as he waits to see if he has succeeded and then wonders, a little unconvincingly, what that means. Freya, stunned by the blast and with worse to come, already knows. “The first trickle of dawn was a breaking egg yolk in the sky.... The light came slow and wide across rooftops, warming long sections of crumbled stone, and she felt her youth being packed away, a piece of paper folded over and over, half-thoughts and quarter-thoughts, gone.”

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