**Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle**
“Devastating . . . Inspired . . . We make so many complex emotional investments in the lives of Lee’s characters that it takes a monk’s restraint not to flip to the very end of the book before you get there.” —Jennifer Senior, New York Times
In September 1984, a bomb was planted at the Grand Hotel in the seaside town of Brighton, England, set to explode in twenty-four days when the British prime minister and her entire cabinet would be staying there. High Dive not only takes us inside this audacious assassination attempt—a decisive act of violence on the world stage—but also imagines its way into a group of unforgettable characters. Nimbly weaving together fact and fiction, comedy and tragedy, the story switches among the perspectives of Dan, a young IRA explosives expert; Moose, a former star athlete gone to seed, who is now the deputy hotel manager; and Freya, his teenage daughter, trying to decide what comes after high school. Over the course of a mere four weeks, as the prime minister’s arrival draws closer, each of their lives will be transformed forever.
A bold, astonishingly intimate novel of laughter and heartbreak, High Dive is a moving portrait of clashing loyalties, guilt and regret, and how individuals become the grist of history.
About the Author
JONATHAN LEE is a British writer whose recent fiction has appeared in Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, among other magazines. High Dive is his first novel to be published in the United States. He lives in Brooklyn, where he is a contributing editor for Guernica and a regular contributor to The Paris Review Daily.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Jonathan Lee
Dan’s first op for the Provos was in darkness, an alley off the Falls Road, half a decade before Dawson McCartland would ask him to become Roy Walsh. He was crouched with his back against a rough brick wall and a man called Colum Allen was beside him. Colum was sometimes called Hallion or Hallinan or the Welsh Saint, the last of these nicknames persisting despite his energetic claims to have no Welsh in him at all. He was tall and thin with a great vein forking up the left side of his neck. Even in the dim you could see it flickering. It moved whenever he spoke, which was always. His leg jerked up and down. Punching his palm was a frequent hobby too. Nodding his head. Biting his fingernails. Humming. Singing. Some of the many daily ways Colum relieved the pressure of being Colum.
“Predetermined is what it is.” Colum’s voice was a quick whisper. “Last time was unlucky, isn’t it? Whole season unlucky. Fuckers this season are on the ropes. Inevitable. Fuckers home in an ambulance. Been lucky. Got a destiny that’s not what they think, to be sure.”
Chance and fate, Dan had started to see, were a great pre-occupation of guys engaged in reckless deeds. He didn’t trust Colum to do a good job. Didn’t trust him to keep his mouth shut after. It was exhausting to think of all the ways he didn’t trust him and why had they been paired together? Dawson kept telling Dan he’d be able to work soon with Patrick. Kept telling him Patrick was too well known to the authorities now—couldn’t be the face of operations, only the brains, needed help. Dawson kept saying Dan and Patrick would make a great team one day, but here he was, teamed with Colum Allen, talking football.
“Agree with sacking Steiny? How could a man. How could. But a man gets no silverwear for the Celtic, his history is history, isn’t it? Fuckers got short memories is what they’ve got. Anyway—” he coughed—“this your debut, is it?”
Dan stood for a moment to grant some relief to his legs, then went back to crouching and squinting. Occasional shapes animated the gloom at the end of the alley. Occasional voices too. There was advance word of RUC raids happening here tonight. The idea was for Dan and Colum to disrupt the raids as much as possible. They had gear on the ground in two zipped bags.
Nerves. When Dan was nervous he didn’t gibber or fiddle with his hands like Colum. Instead, basic questions surfaced. Such as: What am I doing here? Or: Will I end up with a bullet in my brain? Another cool wind was picking up grit. They waited.
“Paddy’s your man, is he?”
Dan was silent. Disconcerting to think a guy as simple as Colum could have a read on your thoughts.
“Internment, was he?”
“Yeah,” Dan said. “I think so.”
“Fuckers keep their secrets.”
He knew exactly how long Patrick had been interned by the Brits without trial. But he’d also learned that it was unwise to give your facts away for free. Sharing less—sometimes less than was decent—made the other person uncomfortable. In an uncomfortable silence, people gave you more of themselves. The RUC had apparently come at dawn to pick Patrick up. The whine of the Saracens, bulky six-wheeled monsters, being slipped into a low gear. A dimmed stage, dark vehicles, blackened faces, not unlike the expected scene tonight; the occasional white blotch from a Catholic paint bomb. The whole of your life in Belfast was organised around light and dark, visibility and invisibility, silence and sound, information and secrecy, the private rubbing up against the public and making you feel tired. None of this Dan said to Colum.
“Heard about your initiation,” Colum said. “Aye. The dogs. That one’s getting nice and famous. Though I expect he was only preparing Your Majesty for obstacles others might raise.”
Don’t give in, Dan thought. But he gave in. “What did you hear?”
Colum grinned and scratched his neck, staring at the ground as if it were the future. “Other option, course, is he just wanted to give you nightmares. Dawson McCartland’s nice like that. Fuckers love a good nightmare.” He clicked his fingers. “My first time? They gave me a gun and an address and that was that.”
“I won’t be doing any of that stuff.”
“Ha,” Colum said, and allowed himself an unusual pause. “Demoralises the police, stiffing them at home. Shows all the other police there’s no place that’s their own to relax, they said. Hadn’t even occurred. I was even younger than you, probably. I was seventeen. So I’m realising quick I’m going to have to get a ride into an Orangies’ area. And I’m realising a certain amount of planning needs to be done for the runback, though I’ve got only a day to do it. So the day comes and I’m wearing a Rangers badge, right? Though it kills me, so it does. And I’m wearing a pair of Beatle boots I got hold of from a fat lad. And all the while they’re not telling me much about this guy I’m going to stiff or any real advice, tips if you will, but I’m used to that, aren’t I? Grandfather used to be an Ulster fiddler, a virtuoso in Donegal—really. Took an awful reddener when he forgot his music one day. None of those fiddler men would let you in on their performance practices, no way; that’s what I’m sayin’. It’s a similar thing. So anyway, I go and stiff the guy and his wife comes screaming into the hall, looking at the pool of blood. Cool as anything I was. Just did the thing and left.”
Dan nodded. “Sure.” People were always heroes in their own telling.
“Yeah,” Colum said. “It was only once I got back to my district and had my first pint that the whole thing went right up on me. Shaking all over I was. Been shaking mostly ever since.”
He had Dan’s attention now. Night clouds moved across the moon. In a brief breeze an empty can rolled towards them and Colum’s shoulders did a jump. They laughed.
A whining sound. A few thin flickers of light. Colum got up. “Here we go,” he said, newly hard in the face, oddly impressive-looking. He picked up the bags. They ran to the end of the alley.
Dan did as he was told. The black Saracens were creeping along the Falls, slow and certain. The walls flanking this section of the road were painted black, a mass redaction of the murals of Bobby Sands and other heroes. The sound of heavy boots. Foot patrols moving behind and alongside the Saracens. Even if Colum had brought his gun with him, there was no way you could see the men well enough to snipe them. All of the officers were wearing black. Anything else would have spoiled the decor.
They watched as two RUC men broke down the first door to a Catholic home. The groan of the wood giving in. Dan’s heart going hard. In the first open bag a dozen plastic bottles. Each of them was three-quarters full with white paint and water. “Quick now,” Colum said. They scrambled to unscrew five or six lids. In another bag they had waterproof sheeting tied around chunks of dry ice. They started squeaking fragments of dry ice into the open bottles of paint, screwing the lids back on. Colum slapped Dan’s face. “Quick, I said.” Running.
Out into the open road. They got alongside the Saracens, a taste of smoke in the air, a soulful adrenalin building. A woman dragged out onto the street was saying “Don’t you touch the inside of my house!” Men from the foot patrol were running into her home and another man, lank and stooped in the dim of the moon, had his hand around the woman’s mouth. Colum hurled the first bottle. The lazy grace of it in the air and the little crackle and pop as it hit bodywork and exploded. Better than when they’d rehearsed. Perfect. White paint sprawling out on the Saracen, white paint dripping and pooling. Dan hurled two bottles. His blood was swaying. Hurt to breathe. Neither exploded. He needed to throw them harder, higher. Colum was shouting “Pots and pans! Pots and pans!” without a single tremor in his voice.
Dan went to ground, grit in his elbows, and pressed more fragments of dry ice into bottles. He sprinted, the bags banging on his shoulders, and threw a bottle at an RUC man—missed—but then one of Colum’s bottles looped and the man’s uniform was half white and the man yelled, fell. Another Saracen backing up to the front door of the next Catholic home to be searched and torn apart. Another throw. Dan was screaming “Pots! Pots! Pots!” and like magic windows were opening all down the street. Colum must have lobbed another bottle high—Dan could see it coming down almost at a vertical—and paint exploded over the roof of a Saracen. A precision hit. He’d got Colum all wrong. Loved the man in this moment. Loved him. Catholic women were leaning out of windows banging pots and pans. The whole street waking up and making noise, ensuring others rose and joined. Don’t let these men rip our floorboards up. Don’t let them call our freedom fighters terrorists. Some of the women were throwing glass bottles stuffed with burning hankies towards the blotches of white, tiny bursts of fire near the targets, three and then six and then more. Other women were in the street in nighties. They were standing in the way of the Saracens and banging their pots and pans above their heads, shouting “Put the fires out if you like! Go on then!” Shouting “What’s a taste of water then? Give us a shower!” All this as Dan ran into another dark alley, the last of his bottles used up, changing into clean clothes and beginning the long jog home.
In training he tried to show that he was hungry for knowledge. There seemed to be an infinite supply. There was more artistry to violence than he’d ever expected, more technique and philosophy. Months rolled by with only paint-bomb operations. Less a war than an apprenticeship—someone finally taking him under their wing. They told him they thought his future was bright.
In a warehouse space that smelt of raw meat they taught him how to open and split a shotgun cartridge. They taught him that candle wax in the tip made it hold together on impact. Mercury in the cartridge made it more deadly. Garlic purée in the cartridge put poison in the blood. They taught him to smear axle grease on a bullet to make it fly through reinforced doors. They taught him to pack cartridges with rice to slow them down. They showed him all the things you could do with the looped brake cable of a pushbike. A knife in a body needs to be twisted upward. Bulletproof glass has a blue-green glint. If a friend’s car is stolen, call Sinn Fein on this number. If a friend’s family is persecuted, call Sinn Fein on that number. Golf courses are for golf and the storage of weapons. Some people relax by emptying magazine after magazine into oil drums, tree stumps, the tyres of abandoned cars; others prefer the cold sophistication of invention, electrics, tricks with cassette-recorder parts. You can hammer away at Semtex with a rolling pin, shifting its shape to fit a suitable space. You can do anything you like, just don’t get any on your hands. On his nineteenth and twentieth and twenty-first birthdays Dawson sent packets of cash.
Excerpted from High Dive by Jonathan Lee. Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Lee. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jonathan Lee
One might expect a novel about failure to be a real drag. But Jonathan Lee's High Dive, which tracks the events leading up to the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton by the IRA, is a tender, funny, and deeply character-driven study of what it means, on an individual and countrywide level, to not get what you want. The story switches between different three fictitious characters' perspectives: Moose, the British manager of the Grand Hotel; his teenager daughter, Freya; and Dan, a young Irish Republican Army bomb maker who is put in charge of planting the bomb in the hotel along with Patrick Magee, the IRA member who was imprisoned for the bombing in real life.
For Americans who might not be familiar with the bloody, decades-long conflict embroiling England and Ireland, Lee's third novel, forthcoming from Knopf in March, provides an intimate opportunity to understand what was at stake for the people of Northern Ireland and the complex ethics of the IRA.
I spoke with Jonathan on a very cold winter's night in his warm Brooklyn apartment about the intersection between the personal and the political, the challenges of writing historical fiction, and our shared hatred of swimming. Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: In the author's note for High Dive you said, "There are large gaps in what is known about the bombing of the Grand Hotel and I have tried over the last few years, to imagine myself in those gaps." What drew you to this story in the first place?
Jonathan Lee: My parents, I think, always wanted to live by the seaside, because a lot of my childhood memories are of my dad driving us down to Brighton on weekends, even in inclement weather. We would lie on the beach and do the whole British attempt at a holiday while the wind was whipping at our faces. And, at some stage, I saw the Grand Hotel from the beach, because it's one of the most imposing buildings there. One of the central beliefs that my mom has based her life around is that one should never use a public toilet, so when we were on the beach, she would drag me into the Grand Hotel to use the bathroom there. I don't remember that, but I remember hearing stories about the Grand Hotel from my parents that it had been bombed and then rebuilt in the late '80s. I was curious about that. And in my twenties, when I was working as a lawyer in London, I did a case where I had to fly out to Belfast a lot. Seeing the Republican murals that are still on the walls and reading about Irish history because I felt slightly embarrassed that I knew so little about it those things got me thinking about the IRA, and at some stage I must have connected it with memories of Brighton.
BNR: What was your research process like for the novel?
JL: In a book about "The Troubles" [the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland], there was a footnote about the Grand Hotel bombing that mentioned how, in court testimony, there had been a suggestion that there was a second bomber who had never been found. So I suppose when I talk in the author's note about gaps, that was the first gap through which I found my way into the story. It was like, okay, I don't want to write a lot from the perspective of Patrick Magee, the actual bomber, because his story was always going to be his, and it felt like a compromised process trying to distort his life to fit the narrative. But there was this second guy who was an empty vessel and no one knew who he was, and I thought that was a real way into the story. Also, there were a ton of self-published memoirs from ex-IRA men, often not very well written, but they were unreliable narratives in a really interesting, useful way, like the level of self-denial involved to explain how one got involved in some of the more violent acts the IRA carried out. And, actually, the first scene of the book came from two lines in someone's memoir. It was a throwaway; they didn't even think it was an interesting anecdote. They said, "Oh and then also there was the day before my initiation where they took me into a field and asked me to play with these dogs and then told me I had to shoot one of the dogs." And I thought there was so much there. So I just started playing with that.
BNR: Given that there is this real timeline and set of facts that you have to stick to, but there are all these gaps in time that you get to fill in yourself, do you find writing historical fiction constraining or freeing?
JL: That's a good question, I think it was both freeing and constraining. I think, for the first year or so of writing, it was very constraining, and it was difficult to give myself the license I needed to invest in these characters I'd made up. To place them in the architecture of the actual event was quite nerve wracking. And then I think, at some point, just through sheer familiarity of spending so much time in that world of the Grand Hotel and Dan's home in Belfast, I started to blur fact and fiction in my head and reached a point where I didn't even know what was real anymore. I think I needed to get to that place in order to finish it.
BNR: Certainly Dan, the bomber, has to blur fact and fiction himself in order to be able to do everything he's doing. There's a lot of self-created narrative there.
JL: I think that's exactly right. I think he had to create a distance between his acts and the effects of his acts, and somewhere in the middle of that, his empathy was stretched. It became an inconvenience for him to have worry about what's going to happen to the girl behind the reception desk and so on. I felt like fiction was the right way to tell this story because it is a story about fiction. It's about these two guys in the IRA coming up with a plot, giving themselves false identities, making themselves characters, and stage-managing events to find the effects that they need.
BNR: Did you always know it was going to be a novel told from three perspectives?
JL: I didn't know. You know, when you write something, people often say to you, "Where'd you get the idea for that? Did that really happen to you? Did you really plant that bomb in that hotel?" But I believe that books are made up of other books as much as they are of experiences. There was one thing I was playing around with on my computer, and I wasn't sure if it was a story or a novel or nothing, and that came out of reading Seize the Day, the Saul Bellow novella. There was this very disappointed, broken-down character who was descending the staircase in this old hotel, and he was staying in the hotel because his life was falling apart, and there was something about that image. I thought, what if there was a man who did that every day, who worked in the hotel and that was his universe? So I started writing something about that without even knowing it was the Grand Hotel. And then, around that time I started rereading Libra by Don DeLillo, and I loved the portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, so I think in part, having the confidence to do the Dan narrative came out of trying to copy DeLillo. A sort of budget DeLillo.
BNR: It's funny how books tend to find you when you are working on something. And they often have nothing to do with what you are writing about, but they'll fit a certain tone you're looking for or a characterization you missed, and they just allow you to go on.
JL: Absolutely. And when you find the thing that you need, you sort of know. It has this weird quality of erasure, too, where you start to forget all the wrong turns you took before, as if, "Oh, that was so easy."
BNR: I hate swimming, but this novel almost made me love swimming.
JL: I hate swimming, too!
BNR: Really? You write about it with such convincing interest. Why did you chose swimming and diving as a shared passion between all the major characters?
JL: Two of my bigger fears are water and heights. It's like a life-threatening thing for me every time I try to go into water. But it holds a bit of a fascination for me as a metaphor, inherently, for art the idea of falling. Also, it felt to me like the structure of the book is a dive. The phrase that high-divers have "the flight of the dive" which is everything from applying pressure and leaving the board right through to the movement of impact and all the twists and somersaults on the way down interested me. The first chapter of the book is called "Initiation," and I feel like the novel traces the momentum from that one event of Dan getting involved in the IRA and there are these twists and turns, but as the novel goes on, the end becomes inevitable, you know where things are heading and then at the end there is the impact. The novel is about the before, about reanimating this event in history. And diving, as a sport, is just pure before, isn't it? No one really cares what comes after you enter the water.
BNR: By the end of the novel, everyone's political convictions are at least muddied if not completely destroyed. Do you think there is a right way to effect positive change?
JL: There is something in me that is captivated by people who have very, very strong convictions about things. I've never been a joiner, so there's always something fascinating to me about someone like Dan who makes it his life's work to bring about some kind of change, even if some of the methods he uses to bring about that change are abhorrent. And I also think it's interesting to me just how pure circumstance can prearrange whether you are someone who is going to be engaged by politics or just be bored by it. Freya and Moose have the luxury of being bored by politics, and Dan, growing up as a young Catholic in a now largely Protestant area in Belfast, doesn't have much choice. He loses people he loves and he's much closer to it, so his radicalization is a lot easier.
BNR: That's what's so troubling about the novel. The possibility that if you had the choice, most people would choose not to. That focusing on the minutiae of your own life is easier than taking a bigger perspective.
JL: Yeah, absolutely. There's a line in a Zadie Smith story called "The Embassy of Cambodia" that says, "Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?" And I think that's a question we all face. And there's something interesting when, like us, you are engaged in the business of writing and creating your own stories, you need to get that creative pressure partly from canceling other things out. I found it hard to judge Freya and Moose for being more focused on the personal rather than the political, but I also wanted to get across that they are very focused on themselves. This is first thing I've written that's dealt with the politics of a time, and I wonder why I and a million other Western writers are so reluctant to talk about the political world.
BNR: Versus the interior portraits of individuals.
JL: When you see the copy of a galley that gets sent to you, so much of it is like "a timeless love story." Almost as if there's something shameful about writing something that is rooted in a time or place or political climate.
BNR: It seems related to what we value: the idea of the individual being the most important.
JL: That was definitely the dream of Margaret Thatcher's time. The dream of individualism. Everyone can succeed on their own, and we don't need, according to Thatcherite policy, the welfare state. I think, in a strange kind of way, Dan is a person that Thatcher would admire. She had no time for the IRA, but Dan is actually digging himself out of his circumstances, however appalling his methods might be.
BNR: What is your favorite thing about language?
JL: Just throwing the hardball in right at the end? I real love trying to stretch language around individual personalities. I think a close third person is so amazing when you see it done well like in Delilo's Libra or Coetzee's Disgrace or John Updike's Rabbit novels still being in third person, but being able to bend it around other people's thoughts. The things I respond to as a writer and reader are these tiny moments of specificity, like when someone captures the exact details that you would walk past on a given day and not notice and holds them up to the light for you so you can see them in all their beauty. I think that's the beautiful thing about language, when it manages to help you see the world more clearly than you can with your own eyes when you are out in it.
I think some people assume that the way to get the greatest amount of immediacy is to tell a story in the first person, but it's a funny thing because often characters have less awareness of themselves than others do, so it can be useful to have that little skin around the character that close third person provides, because you can contract or expand it when you need to.
BNR: And writing feels like the art form that pulls aside the curtain most effectively.
JL: It's incredibly exposing. And it's one of those weird things, isn't it, where you somehow need to forget that anyone will ever read your work in order to get it done so that people can read it.
March 2, 2016