Summary and book reviews of Incendiary by Chris Cleave

Incendiary

By Chris Cleave

Incendiary
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2005,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2006,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

A distraught woman writes a letter to Osama bin Laden after her four-year-old son and her husband are killed in a massive suicide bomb attack at a soccer match in London. In an emotionally raw voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, she tries to convince Osama to abandon his terror campaign by revealing to him the desperate sadness—"I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself"—and the broken heart of a working-class life blown apart.

But the bombing is only the beginning. While security measures transform London into a virtual occupied territory, the narrator, too, finds herself under siege. At first she gains strength by fighting back, taking a civilian job with the police to aid the antiterrorist effort. But when she becomes involved with an upper-class couple, she is drawn into a psychological maelstrom of guilt, ambition, and cynicism that erodes her faith in the society she's working to defend. And when a new bomb threat sends the city into a deadly panic ("It was a panic like the darkest dream and the more people ran out onto the streets the bigger the panic got like a monster made of human beings") she is pushed to acts of unfathomable desperation—perhaps her only chance for survival.

A surreal vision made brilliantly, viscerally powerful and undeniable, Incendiary is a stunning debut novel.

BookBrowse Note: Cleave's novel was published in England on July 7th - the same day that four bombs exploded in London. The UK publisher immediately quieted its publicity machine and took down ads in the London Underground and Cleave posted a note to fans wondering whether he should continue promoting it. The reaction from the USA publisher was quite different, with Knopf ramping up their publicity machine and the initial print run, and offering Cleave as a different kind of commentator on the tragedy saying, "We hear so much from talking heads and security experts, but what Chris brings to life is the real human experience of losing a loved one to an act of violence". The post publication reviews in the UK, which are summarized below (all but PW, Kirkus and Library Journal), are split passionately between people believing it to be a gritty portrayal of modern life and others believing it to be sensationalism. Even the 'timeliness' of the book is coming under criticism, with some pointing out that far from being prescient, the novel is arguably already out-of-date because Cleave portrays a London teetering on the edge of collapse following the bombing - which is patently not what has happened!

As always, you can browse an excerpt and decide for yourself. Also, click the 'Author Interview' link, above or below, to read Cleave's response.

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?

There's a reward of 25 million dollars on your head but don't lose sleep on my account Osama. I have no information leading to your arrest or capture. I have no information full effing stop. I'm what you'd call an infidel and my husband called working-class. There is a difference you know. But just supposing I did clap eyes on you. Supposing I saw you driving a Nissan Primera down towards Haggerston and grassed you to the old bill. ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Cleave's first novel caused considerable controversy when it published in the UK on July 7th 2005 - the same day that four suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured hundreds of others in four separate attacks, three on the London Underground and one on a London bus. Presciently, the campaign for Incendiary included glossy posters on the London Underground showing smoke rising about the skyline and the question, "What if?"   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (419 words).

Media Reviews
The Times Literary Supplement - Mike Brett

Because there are no characters worth caring about, we fail to identify the world of the novel as our own.

The Observer - Hephzibah Anderson

You could say that the timing of Incendiary (its publication date was 7/7) was a macabre confluence of fact and fiction, had not its packaging so deliberately set out to exploit a threat that was ever real. Marketing is marketing, of course, and this would matter less were the book any good. As it is, it reads like the worst kind of 'issues and tissues' teen fiction, both glib and sentimental.

The Observer - Rachel Cooke

When, the day after the tube attacks, Waterstone's pulled its advertising for Incendiary, a novel by Chris Cleave about the havoc wreaked by suicide bombers during a football match at Arsenal's stadium. I thought: good. Cleave's prescience, combined with the cover of his book, emblazoned with plumes of smoke curling above London's skyline, seemed more than 'insensitive'. It felt like an insult.

Sunday Telegraph - Lawrence Norfolk

Cleave has both courted "contemporary relevance" and, following the London bombs, has had such relevance thrust upon him. But if Incendiary, or any book, is to survive such relevance, to walk unscathed, as it were, from the scene of the disaster, it is for the traditional reason that a book has more to say than a bomb. The eloquence of Cleave's heroine is equal to the atrocity which claims her family. She is by turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing.

The Economist

Fiction can be a highly effective way of depicting terror. Not because terror is a better subject than others for novels, though today it has a certain topicality, but because fine writing - and "Incendiary" is a very fine example - is such an eloquent human instrument.

The Guardian

Writing from a non-literary perspective enables Cleave consistently to find words in situations for which no words may commonly be found... how can one fail to be impressed and moved by passages that seem precisely to sum up the national mood following the July 7 attacks?

Publishers Weekly

The whole is nicely done, as the protagonist's headlong sentences mimic intelligent illiteracy with accuracy, and her despairingly acidic responses to events-and media versions of them-ring true. But the working-class London slang permeates the book to a distracting degree.

Library Journal

Graphic depictions of violence and gore accompany humorous reflections on life and class differences-an odd combination that makes for strangely compelling reading.

Kirkus Reviews

Like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Cleave's provocative debut will make readers a little uneasy-and that's okay.

Reader Reviews
Kristi Youngs

Hated this book!
I hated this book and it made me mad. The male author tried to write in a female point-of-view but, women do not think about sex as much as men do. This book was so offensive on so many levels and all of the characters were awful. Don't waste your...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Cleave's novel was published in England on July 7th 2005 - the same day that four bombs were exploded in London. The UK publisher immediately quieted its publicity machine and took down ads in the London Underground, and Cleave posted a note to fans wondering whether he should continue promoting Incendiary. The reaction from the USA publisher was quite different, with Knopf ramping up their publicity machine and the initial print run, and offering Cleave as a different kind ...

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