Given its premise, readers might be forgiven for thinking that the book is a political thriller, but anyone coming to High Dive expecting a cliffhanger in the tradition of Frederick Forsyth or Robert Harris will be disappointed. Lee is far more interested in character than plot. Instead of white-knuckle action, we get a sequence of exquisitely rendered set pieces. The result is a beautifully realized novel about the intertwining of loyalty, family, ambition and politics.
Rather than slavishly recreating the Brighton bombing in its every detail, Mr. Lee freestyles, creating a sympathetic ensemble both at the Grand Hotel and in the streets of Belfast — the book tacks back and forth between the two — all while making expert use of the dramatic tension inherent in waiting for a lethal explosion...There’s great range and compassion and high-definition imagery in Mr. Lee’s writing.
[A]t his best—and he is at it often—Lee displays a nimble metaphysical wit and a verbal ingenuity on a par with Martin Amis’s ... It is Jonathan Lee’s great achievement to have written, on this of all subjects, one of the gentlest novels in memory.
When the bomb at last does its work, the fireworks are suitably whopping, chased by a suitably dazed, Fellini-ish aura of slowed time. High Dive offers a mongrel blend of political thriller, dark comedy and pathos. My puzzlement with this brave, ambitious novel comes from a feeling, at its end, of mislaid — or stillborn — consequence.
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...The second failing of High Dive is its guardedness.
Lee keeps the drama taut till the end, and some characters will linger beyond the final page. High Dive may not quite transport readers to 1980s Britain, but it is a tender story about the hopes and flaws of ordinary people made extraordinary by events.
...a highly amusing and ultimately very moving novel...Mr. Lee draws the reader into his characters’ lives with such sympathy and affection—'the private moments history so rarely records but which make up the minutes in the hours'—that when that inevitable explosion occurs, its impact is all the more devastating.
Lee's 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.
The plot alone could have made for a wonderful thriller, but Lee navigates the novel away from that trope and tells the stories of ordinary people. He successfully adds an intricate depth to every character, from the maids to the public relations coordinator to IRA members. Every character feels fully realized; the ensemble has the most individualized identities of any group I’ve read in the past few years.
High Dive is not only a well-executed suspense novel or political thriller (although it’s both). An editor at the literary journal A Public Space, Lee also takes great care in constructing detailed, empathetic portraits of his characters, investing readers in their fates and adding depth and nuance to his story. He blends fact with fiction, comedy with tragedy, and comes up with a seamless depiction of what happens at the crossroads of ordinary life and history.
Lee’s novel could have done without the long interlude that fills in a backstory for Moose, a cuckolded middle-aged everyman who turns out to be that very un-English type, the faded jock-god...If only Lee had seen, with his otherwise astute eye, that they would be mere distractions from all the inventive things that he does with Margaret Thatcher and that Margaret Thatcher does for him.
Lee’s High Dive is suspenseful, expertly paced, and an excellent read...High Dive succeeds for so many reasons, particularly the author’s strength in creating dramatic scenes with an awareness of the historical and personal significance of the events he writes into the background of his novel. But more importantly, this is a novel of sympathy for the individual, the highly personal, and the domestic.