I could have so easily missed Chris Cleave’s first novel. I was standing in front of a packed bookcase at Chapters, and the salesperson next to me pointed to Little Bee, Cleave’s third novel and said that it was terrific. She highly recommended it. But I noticed other Cleave titles as well, and read all of their dust jackets. The one that grabbed me immediately was Incendiary, and that’s the one I brought home.
What luck! I’ve discovered such a talented writer.
Incendiary doesn’t take long to live up to its title. It begins with:
“Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock’n’roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. Next thing you know there was Sonny & Cher and Dexys Midnight Runners. I’ll come to them later. My point is it’s easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you? […]
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 and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. ”
There’s no turning away from such a beginning, and no turning away from the narrator, a woman in her late twenties from the East End of London whose name is never mentioned. It’s through her voice, in her letter to Osama Bin Laden, that we learn that London was the target of a ferocious bombing attack in Wembley Arena during a Chelsea vs Arsenal football match, on a May Day following the September 11th attacks.
The narrator’s letter traces back to a short time before the attack: just long enough for us to discover the life she had with her husband—a policeman working with the bomb disposal unit— and her son, “the boy”, just 4 years 3 months old on the day he was blown to pieces and burned, along with his dad, by an incendiary bomb,while attending the Arsenal match.
This narrator-woman-mother is an unforgettable character. She’s as ferocious as she is fragile; as desolate and sad as she is feisty and pragmatic; as cynical and pugnacious as she is witty and vulnerable. Her pain isn’t stronger than her love.
She’s also an Eastender through and through and on her account, Cleave makes all kinds of strong choices in his novel.
Despite the broad scope of the events portrayed (all of London; all of England is on full alert for the three seasons of the story), the narrative is centered around the woman, the Husband and the Boy (this is how she refers to them throughout the book), and three more characters: Chief Superintendent Terrence Butcher of Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism unit, and two posh journalists, Jasper Black and Petra (also the woman in his life).
We learn that on the day of the bombing, while her husband and boy were at the game, the narrator was in bed in their flat with Jasper Black. We also learn that immediately after the explosion, she and Jasper ran towards the stadium, in search of her loved ones, rather than away.
As the woman staggers through the aftermath of the bombing, crushed by guilt and not quite alive, it becomes clear that this is not a story of resilience.
“Sex is not a beautiful and perfect thing for me Osama it is a condition caused by nerves. Ever since I was a young girl I get so anxious. It only needs a little thing to get me started. Your Twin Towers attack or just 2 blokes arguing over a cab fare it’s all the same. All the violence in the world is connected it’s just like the sea. When I see a woman shouting at her kid in Asda car park I see bulldozers flattening refugee camps. I see those little African boys with scars atop of their skulls like headphones. I see all the lost tempers of the world I see HELL ON EARTH. It’s all the same it all makes me twitchy.”
We realize that before her life was shattered, she was already disposed to anxiety attacks that triggered multiple self-soothing episodes of meticulous amd compulsive tidying up and sorting.
This young mother is self-aware, and that makes us care about her story all the more:
“[…] I put them in alphabetical order it was a great comfort. I wish I could put the whole world in alphabetical order Osama there would be Deserts and Forests and Oceans between you and my boy.”
Such honesty grabs hold of the reader’s heart.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, tormented by flashbacks and hallucinations filled with severed limbs, bones peeping out of ripped, blackened and charred flesh, and almost always doped up on tranquilizers or drunk (or both at once), she moves through a world that’s disturbingly inhospitable. There is a class divide running through the story, and London society after the bombing is as hierarchical and merciless as it was before.
Each time hope flickers, we can’t help but wonder whether she’ll be thrown off the tightrope between living and dying that she’s been walking along since the bombing.
This is a novel that almost wasn’t.
I was stunned to learn that the launch party for Cleave’s newly published novel was held on the evening of July 6th, 2005. A few hours later, on July 7th, three suicide bombers detonated their devices in the London Underground. An hour after that, a fourth bomber hit a bus in Tavistock Square. More than fifty lives were lost.
Such unfortunate, unimaginable prescience.
In a piece posted on his website titled “The Story Behind INCENDIARY”, Cleave asks the question:
“What use is there in fiction in times like these? In the days after 7th July 2005, as the posters for Incendiary were hastily pulled down, the advertisers cancelled, my book tour shelved, and the novel temporarily withdrawn from sale by many UK retailers, I didn’t have an answer.”
With the hindsight of eleven years, and a view of the world in which our fears seem only to have grown, I would argue passionately that such stories are more necessary than ever. By traveling alongside characters like the woman, The Boy and The Husband and by feeling kinship and compassion for them, we are reminded that our lives are weighed on an individual human scale, and that:
“Love is not surrender […] love is brave and loud […]”
(from the conclusion of Incendiary)
Other novels by Chris Cleave:
It turns out that Incendiary is the only title that the Library doesn’t have in its collection (It can certainly be obtained through interlibrary loan). This may be because its subject matter was considered too sensitive when it first appeared.
However, as of August 30th, it is on order, and will soon be available at the Library.
Luckily, all of the author’s subsequent novels are available, including: