It’s 1984, and 19-year-old Freya is working at the hotel her father manages in Brighton, wondering about her future. Her father, Moose, is hoping that the planned visit from Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet will bring him a promotion. And in Northern Ireland, a man named Dan is planning his own trip to Brighton as part of an IRA plot.
Jonathan Lee uses the September 1984 planting of a bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel as the backdrop for this novel, although the three major characters are themselves fiction. And for most of the book, their lives, particularly Freya and Moose’s are pretty ordinary. Only Dan understands what’s coming, and he’s not some impassioned ideologue counting the seconds till the explosion. He did the job he was asked to do, planting a bomb, and he wonders whether it was the right thing and what the results would be. But it’s a quiet wondering.
This book is a great example of a novel that gets everything technically correct but still doesn’t quite win me over. I can’t think of a single specific criticism of the book, but I just couldn’t muster up much interest in it. It’s an ordinary and competent work of literary fiction. Lee alternates among the three characters, showing their thoughts and activities in the days leading up to the bombing and including occasional flashbacks to the years of choices that brought them to where they are. The novel opens, for example, with a flashback to Dan’s initiation into the IRA. It’s one of the book’s more gripping moments. The rest of the narrative dwells on ordinary life.
That’s not to say that ordinary life isn’t fraught with drama. Moose, stressed out with preparation for the prime minister’s visit, has a heart attack. Freya starts seeing someone new and puts a friendship in jeopardy. There’s drama, but it’s ordinary drama. I suppose Lee is trying to show that lives touched by headline-making tragedy are ordinary lives right up until that moment, and those ordinary lives are worth caring about. And I cared, but not in a way that made me love this book.
I don’t know if my mood was the problem or if the book is just too competent without being risky. I liked this book well enough, and I’m not sorry to have read it, but it just seemed like formulaic literary fiction to me. There was nothing to make me love it.