By Judith Orr
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High Dive

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Issue 407

Fiction based on historic events can suffer from the lack of plot surprises when the conclusion, in this case the 1984 Brighton bombing of the hotel the Tory cabinet were staying in, is well known.

So the questions raised throughout are not, will the bomb go off? Will Margaret Thatcher die? They are about the non-celebrity characters and their fate.

Jonathan Lee moves the narrative between the world of IRA volunteers training in Northern Ireland and life behind the scenes of the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

This is rather like a TV fly on the wall series that looks at any major hotel in the run up to a major prestigious event. Special brandy glasses and napkins from Scotland are shipped in, repairs are made, and staff are issued with biographies of all the Tory grandees and instructed in how to address them.

So we get to know Moose, the Grand’s deputy manager who hopes to win promotion if he pulls off running the hospitality for the Tory conference.

His daughter Freya works in reception, her love life, relationship with her father and general life for young people in Brighton in the 1980s is fascinating and could be the basis for a book itself.

The book is full of cultural references to the time, whether clothes, music or food, and these sections are the most absorbing.

So this is a very readable novel but in the end the style and approach feel too lightweight for the subject he has chosen.

The depiction of the void between Freya’s wistful longings and the day to day experience of sectarianism in Belfast doesn’t come off. It feels contrived even though it’s based on real events.

Lee has tried to go beyond caricatures of IRA men; they are not simply seen as monsters, which may not go down well with any Tory readers.

He wants to show that the Brighton bomber, here called Dan Walsh, has roots and history but sadly the portrayal of the Republicans doesn’t convince. They still come across as one dimensional despite the attempts to give them depth.

So the weakness of the portrayal of the Walsh character and his background undermines the structure of the novel. It leaves the reader without a sense of the sheer scale and depth of discrimination and repression that drove a generation of young Catholics to take up armed struggle in the first place.

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