INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave

Book Quote:

“Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better. I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (MAR 12, 2011)

Imagine that you’re a working class Cockney mother with a husband who detonates bombs and a young son who is four years and three months old. You stave off your anxieties about the uncertainty of your life through mindless sex encounters. Eventually, you meet a neighbor – a journalist named Jasper – and, while your husband and son are at a soccer game, you invite him to your flat. At the exact same time you are in the throes of sexual abandon, there’s a massive terrorist bomb attack at the London soccer stadium, vaporizing over one thousand people – your husband and son among them. How do you go on? How do you live with the remorse?

Chris Cleave explores that question in an epistolary structure; the nameless woman writes a letter to Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the attack. The epistolary form is used with caution as a framing device (Nicole Krauss’s The Great House and Moshid Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist come to mind), because it is not easy to pull off. The reader is a fly-on-the-wall and can choose to connect with the narrator – or not. And if truth be known, Mr. Cleave is not entirely successful in his narrative control as the conceit of writing to Osama begins to wear thin.

What he is successful with is developing a fragile persona – an obsessive woman who is gradually unraveling as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder and who is quickly spiraling downward. The anonymity of the character makes her everywoman, trying to survive in a post-terrorist world. The woman writes, “Before you bombed my boy Osama I always through an explosion was such a quick thing but now I know better. The flash is over very fast but the fire catches hold inside you and the noise never stops…I live in an inferno where you could shiver with cold Osama. This life is a deafening roar but listen. You could hear a pin drop.”

The bombing and PSTD, though, is only the beginning. London is quickly transformed into a virtual occupied post apocalyptic territory as the woman fights her own inward battles. She is drawn into a psychological maelstrom with Jasper and his fiancée, Petra, an upper-class fashion journalist who happens to resemble her closely.

Indeed, Petra and the narrator may very well represent two parts of London, which is described as “a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking.” Each cannot exist without the other. And so they enter a danse-a-deux of symbiosis and betrayal. Eventually, the novel veers toward a stunning denouement and an over-the-top ending.

It’s extraordinary ambitious for a first-time novelist (this book was written before Chris Cleave’s more well-known Little Bee) and sometimes the prose comes across as rather self-congratulatory or forced. Mr. Cleave’s intention, it seems, is to portray a decadent Western society that struggles to break free of its class distinctions – without success, setting itself up as something to tear down. Yet at the core of the novel, there is an emotional void. The characters are not quite satirical, yet not quite real. And as a result of the epistolary form, we, as readers, are held at arm’s length, not quite embracing them.

This often disturbing, sometimes macabre novel has its own intriguing history. The morning after its initial launch party, in July 0f 2005, three suicide bombers detonated their devices in the London Underground. The book tour was shelved and the novel was temporarily withdrawn from sale by many UK retailers. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. And in Chris Cleave’s world, fiction is very strange indeed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 53 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition (January 11, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another epistolary structured novel:


March 12, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, Unique Narrative, United Kingdom

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