Incendiary by Chris Cleave

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Incendiary by Chris Cleave

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A great look at a woman's point of view, soul and more, when a terrorist attack kills her young son and husband. It always rings true, and is a modern classic of speculative fiction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340998489

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When the Book Reviewing Gods first suggested I re-read this book (the first time they have asked such a repeat of me) I felt like writing them a letter. But soon any draft I might have made would have referred not so much to the duplicated experience, but the joys of rediscovered depths, characters lost and found again, and a plot to be experienced once more.

The un-named narrator of this book certainly feels like writing a letter - she has got a lot of patience to pour out 300pp in the direction of Osama bin Laden. An Islamic terrorist attack demolished one quarter of a football stadium while her husband and four year old lad were having an innocent time of watching their team beat their greatest rivals. Such a shocking event does not mean she is ever a shell of a character, with two masculine holes in her life. Instead she's a brilliant person to read and read about.

She has her own narrative style - as she says at one point, she's not sure on where to put commas, so hardly uses them. She has a unique way with metaphors and similes, and breaks often into tabloidese, headline-style capitalised nouns like a TRUE ORIGINAL. She can get as far immersed with her letter as the most heart-rending (but never mawkish) detail, and advising bin Laden on what it's like working at Tesco's, should he ever do so.

It was great to go through the year of the attack with her, and the plot that one still cannot guess. That might partly be down to a certain woolliness to it, which is excusable when it comes to the insight Cleave gives us to his heroine's class, status, society and so on. You can see enough of Britain to ask with the text whether bin Laden might not have had a point or two with his stance. I disagree with the blurb on the first edition I went back to, mentioning humour three times. There are comic characters and lines, sure, but for me the drive of the book is towards speculative fiction, sincerely wrought, easily read without irony, with the finest of trust-worthy narrators.

The book on the whole might suffer for its easy, but incorrect, summary, the one where the woman writes to bin Laden because she's lost her son. There is a lot more to it than that. Removed as I was from current, domestic terrorism, as I was on re-reading it, it still rang true with all its complexity. The first edition's launch day, as you'll recall, was 7/7, when London was hit by real life Islamic terrorism. It leaked out, with renown and no end of guilt about possible claims of it cashing-in, and I can imagine proofs being passed round like hot potatoes.

In that year between its delayed launch and it reaching me for the first time, Britain had the smoking ban which adds to a couple of details in the text that make it feel incorrect, alienated from reality. I think details such as the distance the narrator can crawl, and the ease of getting pills, are unwanted elements of the fabulous from a debut author.

Still it remains a brilliantly astute look at life with guilt, incrimination, love and the lack thereof, and more, after tragedy. This new, 2009 edition has a change of acknowledgements page, and is the first book I've got from the afore-mentioned Gods to have the author's twitter address on it. But the fact I got so much from reading it for the second time in three years should be a heads-up to just how much one can get from it should they be picking it up for the first time.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I have also watched the DVD of the film, which was being adapted before the book was ever out. It completely loses the speculative fiction side of things in favour of a look at a woman seeking closure. (There are other, huge differences - a rather uncinematic strand is lost and replaced with an unnecessary new character.) This search is in the original too, of course, but the fact the film can find a very different stance to the story only shows how Cleave's experience working in psychology brought his female lead character so fully to life, and created such an enjoyable, rounded book.

Chris Cleave followed this up with The Other Hand. For something a little similar in speculative fiction, but going way beyond Incendiary, you may fancy The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall.

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