The Short Version: It’s 1984 and Maggie Thatcher is prime minister, Ireland is tearing itself apart, and life is otherwise moving steadily forward. But when Thatcher’s entire leadership team plans to stay in Brighton for a conference, three lives – a hotel manager, his daughter, and an IRA operative – collide with the bombing of the Grand Hotel as their backdrop.
The Review: This has been a year for slow burners in the ToB – books that take their time, develop at their leisure, maybe don’t come into focus until past the halfway point – but once I figured out what this book ‘was’, it clicked wonderfully: it’s an end-of-summer book, the kind that evokes that feeling not of fall’s arrival but of summer’s fading glories and the last gasps of warmer days. Each of the characters experiences this metaphorical season-shift – as do England and Ireland in general, in the wake of the bombing. There is a nostalgic gaze to this novel even as it disabuses us of the notion that the past might’ve been a better place.
The novel opens with a rather harrowing induction of Dan into the IRA: he’s given a choice of death or murdering two dogs. It’s a moment that goes from zero to sixty in no time at all and it would imply a rather different kind of novel – but author Jonathan Lee has other ideas in mind. He hops forward, from the late 70s into 1984 (a year of totemic significance, I only now realize: Orwell’s exact vision may not have come true, but Thatcher’s UK would’ve scared his pants off nonetheless), and introduces two other characters who have zero interaction with the brutal violence happening across the UK as Ireland seeks to sort out its archaic religious differences. Dan, our IRA member, floats through the novel too – but he takes something of a back seat to Freya and Moose and the Grand Hotel in Brighton.
Moose – a nickname, it should be said; a hanger-on from a time when he was a touted young athlete – is reaching that peak of middle-age, the moment when the body surprises you when it gives out in some unexpected way. For Moose, it arrives in the form of a heart attack and he struggles to get back on his feet in the midst of angling for a promotion, longing for a little personal comfort, and urging his daughter to escape this life for university. Freya, his daughter, is a classic angsty teenager: she works shifts at the hotel, deals with mean-girl friends, falls for a scruffy surfer, and can’t quite muster the energy to leave because she can’t quite imagine what comes next.
Dan is still there, around the edges like a shadow. We see him in the build-up to the bombing, planning and scheming, but also trying to defend himself and his Catholic mother from threats and dangers on their otherwise Protestant street. Lee wants us to sympathise or at least empathise with Dan, to realize that even as he aims to enact massive violence, he too is being targeted by violence just the same. I’ll admit to being a little less-than-savvy when it comes to the politics of the Troubles – but the parallel to American incursions into the Middle East is obvious. Yes, there are people trying to kill us – but they’re being killed, too. There’s a cycle of violence here, one that remains largely off-page in Lee’s novel but that is nevertheless looming and present in the lives of all of the characters.
The best thing about the novel are these characters, especially Moose and Freya. They aren’t exceptional, they aren’t anything you haven’t seen before, but by the time the novel ticks over the halfway mark, I found that I had come to care about them deeply. I was surprised, frankly, to discover this, because I’d felt oddly at arms length for the first half of the book – nothing about the writing was standoffish or unpleasant, but I just wasn’t getting into the book. And I can’t exactly point to a moment when it changed, only note that it did change. I was worried about Freya’s relationship with Surfer John (Surfer John, the perfect nickname for the perfect end-of-summer wag), I was hopeful that Moose might find a little love in his middle age, and I wanted them to both succeed and be happy. I wanted this so much that I forgot I was reading historical fiction: I began to hope that something would go wrong, that the bomb wouldn’t go off, that it would turn out to be a twist in the tale.
And so it is a testament to Lee’s subtle skill that, when the time came, he seemed to take no pleasure in reporting the awful events with a newscaster’s aplomb and skill. He knew that we would hurt, that we would’ve been convinced at this point that summer had ended safely and everything would be okay. The fact that the violence in this novel really only bookends it makes it something of a surprise, considering it involves the IRA during the height of the Troubles, and that shift in expectations plays to Lee’s advantage. As he notes in a brief afterword, this is the last time government officials moved without massive security apparati – and Thatcher’s surviving the attack did (as Dan’s handler mused, albeit in a different way) bring about (within a few years) a conclusion to the worst period of conflict in and around Ireland. The problem is, the violence itself didn’t make anything better. For a book that stands largely on its own as a classic end-of-summer tale (excerpt something from the middle 5/6ths and you might not realize it even involves a bombing or violence), it is impossible to escape the realities that Lee delivers in the final pages. It changes the way you interpret what came before, changes the way you felt about it. It is that first frost telling you, for good, that summer is gone.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I really worried, as I began this book, that I wouldn’t like it. Something about it kept stalling out in the first 50-60 pages, not quite keeping my attention. But something clicked and shifted and while the book never fully recovers – it feels, at times, like two distinctly separate stories welded together imperfectly – I was caught up in its warmth and quiet hope. Caught as I was, the ending – laid out for us in the jacket copy and history books – shocked and startled and saddened. Ordinary lives were forever changed by an act of violence, violence perpetrated by those who themselves can’t escape violence being done to them. These events may’ve happened over 30 years ago… but do they really feel that far removed? The distressing answer is ‘no.’