Author: Chris Cleave

2005, Knopf

Filed Under: Literary

I would have liked this book far better in 2005. It’s not bad by any means, and Cleave is a great writer (I picked his Little Bee as my Best Book of 2009). However, at this point–jaded as it sounds–I’m a little sick of novels dealing with Western responses to terrorism post 9/11. Incendiary offers some strong characters and stronger narration, even if the plotting gets a little unbelievable and the themes are a little stale (to be fair, they weren’t nearly as such in 2005 when the book was published).

The narration is a tad abrasive at first. It’s written from the perspective of a poor and uneducated widow in London. This nameless protagonist’s slang and poor punctuation, while initially a bit off-putting, grows on you once her intelligence begins to seep through. Cleave does a fine job of playing on his reader’s assumptions and building a unique and dynamic character from that base. Similarly off-putting at first, she continually speaks to Osama bin Laden, as if the book is a letter to the terrorist kingpin. This annoyed me in the early chapters, felt gimmicky and maybe even sensationalist, but eventually it clicks, and I later felt it added to the emotional weight of the tale.

Due to this filter, we never get the sense that the narrator is trying to sound smart. Instead it feels like wisdom or sagacity sneaking out of panicked, off-the-cuff remarks. For instance:

Before you bombed my boy Osama I always thought 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. You can press your hands on your ears but you can never block it out. The fire keeps roaring with incredible noise and fury. And the strangest thing is people can be sitting right next to you on the Central Line and not hear a sound. 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.

As for the plot, the book takes place after a major terrorist attack in London. A football stadium is suicide-bombed with incendiary devices during a big match, killing thousands and throwing Britain into upheaval. The narrator’s husband and son are killed in the the attack. She was having an affair at the time with a rich journalist named Jasper Black. From here, the narrator tries to make sense of life and face the future. Her family is destroyed and her life becomes inextricably intertwined with Jasper–who deals with post-traumatic stress syndrome by becoming a major coke addict–and his egocentric and overbearing girlfriend, Petra.

All three characters are expertly rendered. As was the case in Little Bee, Cleave demonstrates in Incendiary his knack for top-notch characterization. They are fleshed out and real and believable, even if the situation they are thrust into is not. The plotting really got to me; the scenario that develops is implausible, and doesn’t serve the thematics quite as well as it could.

I’m not talking about the terrorist attack here. I’m glad Cleave invented his own incident (it’s called May Day) rather than write a 9/11 novel. It gives him a lot more room to breathe and explore the implications of the event on his characters. What I didn’t like so much was the dynamic that developed between Japser, Petra, and the protagonist/narrator. The book needs to draw these three together, I get that, and I see what Cleave is getting at with the musings on life that come about with this weird three-way relationship after a nationally traumatic event. But I just couldn’t actually buy it. The narrator comes home from the hospital after the attacks (in a similarly implausible event, she was injured by running into the blast zone) to find Jasper and Petra engaged in sex in her own apartment, Petra clearly acting out Jasper’s fantasies by dressing in the narrator’s clothes and yelling about her lack of wealth. Later, the narrator pulls a similar switch by pretending to be Petra.

So while the identity confusion that arises from such a traumatic event is a good and interesting thing to explore, it is very difficult to believe these three would wind up in any sort of friendly relationship with each other. In fact, they end up all living together for a spell. This effectively creates a new family for the narrator, but makes little sense for the other characters. Frankly, I can’t see why either woman wants anything to do with the drug addicted Jasper, and though Cleave handles the tensions between them quite well, it’s still hard to fathom why no character pulls the kill switch on the relationship before it gets to the climax the plot requires. This scenario doesn’t kill the book, it just feels like a device in service of moving the plot and theme rather than an organic thing, which was so much the strength of the language, dialogue, and characterization.

All told this is a very good novel, especially for a debut. If you aren’t yet burned out on post-9/11 fiction about Western victims of terrorism, it is definitely worth a read. Stick out the first 40 pages and you’ll almost certainly enjoy the rest of the book. And while you’re at it, read Little Bee if you haven’t, it wields all Incendiary‘s strengths and lacks its weaknesses.

Similar Reads: The White Tiger (Adiga), Little Bee (Cleave), Twilight of the Superheroes (Eisenburg)