Sunday, August 15, 2010

INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave

Incendiary hit British bookstores on July 7, 2005 - the day four suicide bombers crippled London transport, "killing 52 people and injuring more than 770." The timing was eerie. In Chris Cleave's novel, a group of suicide bombers have struck a London stadium, killing more than 1000 football fans.

Incendiary is about one of the survivors, a young working-class widow who has lost not only her husband but also their four-year-old son. The woman, never named, tells her story in the form of a letter to Osama Bin Laden.
I'm going to write to you about the emptiness that was left when you took my boy away. I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son. What could be more natural?
Incendiary is Cleave's first novel. His second is Little Bee, which last month I called "the best novel I've read so far this year." Little Bee fans, be warned: Incendiary is also brilliantly written, but it is much harder to read.

Some reviewers complained about the abundance of East London slang. Really, I don't think that is what slows down most readers: it's easy enough to figure out from the context. What makes this novel hard to read is its raw first-person portrayal of unquenchable grief spilling over into madness.

Both Little Bee and Incendiary are built on situations that sound a lot like the latest news stories. Both include a pair of journalists as major characters, and in both cases the journalists wrestle with how much to tell about what they know. If the journalists sound realistic, it's because Cleave himself used to work for the Daily Telegraph, and he is clearly concerned about the U.K.'s foreign policy and approach to terrorism.

His novels are nothing like journalistic accounts, however. They are literary fiction with all of that genre's characterization and interiority, rescued by a reader-pleasing overlay of plot and wry humor. Here's an example of Cleave's black humor:

Terrible things have been happening, and the protagonist wonders aloud how anyone can "carry on living in a world like this." Her friend sighs.
--People keep themselves busy don't they? he said.

He turned to look out over London.

--Look at all that, he said. Under each lightbulb is somebody keeping themselves busy. Exfoliating and applying the anti-wrinkle cream. Writing long sales reports people will only ever read the last page of. Agonising whether their cock is shrinking or the condoms are getting bigger. What you see down there is the real front line in the war against terror. That's how people go on. Staying just busy enough so they can't feel nervous. And do you know what they're mostly busy doing? DIY. For a whole week after May Day the airports stayed closed and the DIY stores stayed open. It's pathetic. People are laying their fears to rest under patio slabs. They're grouting against terror.

I looked away from the city and back at Jasper Black.

--You don't think much of people do you?

He shrugged.

--I'm a journalist, he said.
A film version of Incendiary was released in 2008. It got rotten reviews. This is not surprising. What makes the book worth reading - and it is definitely worth reading, if you can handle chaos and grief - is not so much the story as the compelling way Cleave tells it

You can read more about Chris Cleave and his books on his website.

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