Jonathan Lee & Emily Bitto

Lee_diveSometimes I pick up a novel just because a writer I like blurbed it. Such was the case when I read Lauren Groff’s (Fates and Furies) rave about Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, a novel about an assassination attempt on the life of British PM Margaret Thatcher. It’s more than the taut political thriller you might expect … though there is a healthy dose of that. But it’s the humanity in this novel, the compassionate character development that drew me in.

The novel opens with a bang, the initiation rite for Dan, a young inductee into the Irish Republican Army. And it will definitely shake you up. From there the novel moves to seaside Brighton, where we meet Freya, a young woman trying to figure out what to do with her life while working at the Grand Hotel, where her father, a depressed former athlete, is the deputy manager. The novel builds to the Iron Lady’s long-anticipated visit to the hotel as we await the explosion of a long-delay detonator bomb planted there. Lots of suspense.

Lee has keen descriptive powers as with this portrayal of a sunny fall day in Brighton:

On rare September days like this, people in Brighton didn’t hang about. They threw off their drizzled raincoats and raided drawers for gaudy shorts. They cooked themselves on towels and bobbed about on waves. Gulls tottered across rocks, heads dipping low and feet lifting high, the motion mirrored by a kid checking his show soles for chewing gum.

And his description of the hotel itself: “One hundred and twenty years of stinging drizzle, of corrosive sunshine, of the salty gales and acidic bird shit that is every coastal town’s cross to bear.”

As the novel, based on a real life incident, moves from Belfast to Brighton, we get a sense of how the disappointment and lowered expectations of the Thatcher years play out in the main characters. This is the first of Jonathan Lee’s three novels to be published in the U.S. I can’t wait to read the others.

Bitto_straysIt’s hard to believe that The Strays is Emily Bitto’s first novel. The story of a teenaged girl in 1930s Australia who is swept up into the bohemian, unconventional life of her best friend’s artistic family, this novel is too assured and perceptive to have been written by a rookie.

It’s tricky to tell a story from a young girl’s point of view, but Bitto pulls it off in spades with trenchant ruminations on family, friendship, the art world, and the desire to live an unconventional life. Mostly, it’s the story of the kind of intense friendship only young girls can have. Reminiscent of Elena Ferrante in that regard, Bitto suffers nothing by comparison. Her depiction of the way Lila and Eva twine their legs around each other’s in sleep is so intimate to make their parting ever more painful.