Book reviews: fiction from Jonathan Lee, Robert Merle and Lewis Carroll
Lee's imagining of a recent historical event – the IRA’s attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1984 – marks him as a talent to watch
by Jonathan Lee
William Heinemann (e-book)
Jonathan Lee’s third novel recreates 1984’s Brighton Bombing, one of the IRA’s most outrageous assaults against the English mainland. The novel describes years of planning – the action begins in 1978 with the nerve-shredding initiation of Dan, one of the bombers. The explosive device itself has a fuse set 25 days in advance. The IRA’s primary targets were the Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, and her Conservative Party cabinet. The story branches out from Belfast into Brighton, where the main cast mixes uneasily over the month it takes for the bomb to be primed. We have “Moose”, the deputy manager of the Grand Hotel whose failing health runs in parallel to the rising tension. His daughter, Freya, is drifting after school and waiting for her life to begin. Dan waits too, but for drama of far grimmer dimensions. Brighton’s reputation as a seaside holiday resort provides a disorienting atmosphere, one that is heavy on the ironic. High Dive is a kind of slowed down thriller that exploits delay and pauses to painful effect. What we are left with is a courageous work of art that works its own kind of high dive trick – a relentless momentum whose twists demand close attention. Jonathan Lee is a real talent.
City of Wisdom and Blood
by Robert Merle (read by Andrew Wincott)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Robert Merle, a French novelist who died in 2004, scored a belated hit with The Brethren (first published in 1977). The first part of an epic 13-part history of France’s religious strife during the 16th and 17th centuries, it followed two knights (Jeans de Siorac and de Sauveterre), retired from hard-fought Norman campaigns to a castle in the bucolic Perigord region. City of Wisdom and Blood picks up their story, or rather that of de Siorac’s son, Pierre. It opens in 1566, when Pierre is now 15 years old and living in Montpellier, supposedly to study philosophy, logic and above all medicine. His studies are really “good victuals and sweet wench”. Accompanying him on his disorientation of the senses is his brother Samson. Setting their revels and political liberalism in context is a rising tide of religious violence which culminates with a massacre of Catholics in Nimes. This vibrant and exciting story is read with conservable verve by Andrew Wincott, who enjoys the political debates and the tensions drawing Pierre slowly towards adulthood. His voice positively reeks of naughtiness but can slow for seriousness and drama. As I said last year, I can’t wait for the next part.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll (read by Miriam Margolyes and Alan Bennett)
Bolinda Publishing (audiobook)
Last week I looked at two novels inspired by that greatest of children’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is exactly 150 years old in four days’ time. For the 2015 anniversary I have listened to two wonderful but obviously different renditions. Alan Bennett’s, whose gentle, rather mournful tones are very suited to the Dormouse. His narration takes its time, and sounds intimate and avuncular. So do most of his characters. Try as he might, and Bennett does try, everyone sounds, well, like Alan Bennett. No bad thing, but a big contrast to Miriam Margolyes who gives it all she has and quite a lot more besides. She zips from a lively narrator through a host of voices: a nicely pompous March Hare, madcap Had Hatter and a frankly unhinged Red Queen who makes Lady Bracknell sound like the Dormouse. When she shouted: “Get up!” I found myself standing. Each has its delights (Bennett brings out a dreamy melancholy), but if pressed I would choose Margolyes.