four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
By: 
Chris Cleave
user_rating: 
0

A-IncendiaryA bomb rips apart a London soccer match—as well as the life of our nameless narrator, whose husband and four-year-old son die in the terrorist attacks. This epistolary novel, addressed to Osama bin Laden, records the attempt on the part of our bereaved working-class widow to understand how and why and who he is. "I’m going to write," she says, "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." As London goes on high-alert, our narrator must try to put her life back together (sex helps, as do gin and Valium). Then, a new bomb menace once again threatens the city, and the narrator succumbs to acts of desperation.
Knopf. 237 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0307262820

Baltimore Sun 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Cleave’s Orwellian look at the way we live now is hyper-realistic, his narrator true to the point where one can almost hear her ragged breathing, smell the gin and tears on her breath. . . . [T]his is a near-perfect debut that will give the reader nightmares that may seem far too real on waking." Victoria A. Brownworth

Economist 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Cleave has also managed two particular, and rather old-fashioned literary achievements: a distinctive narrative voice and a captivating heroine."

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Add that this whole novel is a letter beginning ‘Dear Osama,’ and the potential audience could decide they want no part of it. But that would mean missing a mesmerizing tour de force: ragged, breathless, full of raw emotion, the blackest of humor and relentless action." Brigitte Weeks

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"This Everywoman voice—complete with sentence fragments, run-on sentences, poor punctuation, gritty blue-collar slang and torturous veering between anger, resignation and hope—is utterly believable and mesmerizing. . . . [The narrator is] each of us adrift in the wake of a heart-wrenching loss, when all the standard moorings have been cast off and nothing seems to make sense." Dan Cryer

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Incendiary is far from a perfect novel. The conceit of writing to bin Laden grows thin. . . . . [Cleave] is at his best when describing the chaos brought on London; the bombing scenes are visual fireballs." Tamara Straus

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It is a case of simple tastelessness. . . . This cry of pain—which is rendered in genuinely heartfelt, heartbreaking terms—quickly gives way, however, to a long, chatty, sometimes hysterical reminiscence about the narrator’s life, in which she treats Osama as a sort of psychiatrist-cum-father confessor." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

An all-around stunning novel. Even if Incendiary hadn’t eerily predicted the bombings on the London Tube (and hit British bookstores that same day), it would rank as one of this season’s novels to be missed at your own peril (unless you’re swearing by Michiko Kakutani, who deemed the book in poor taste). Cleave has mimicked the voice of a working-class woman with remarkable persuasiveness—though non-British readers may wallow in East End slang confusion. A formal journalist, he has brought an eye for detail and political commentary to his fiction. A little parody—and a little sex—deflect the novel’s unbearable sobriety, if the narrator’s affair belies credibility. Take that, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ian McEwan! Cleave’s debut could be considered the finest post-9/11 terrorism novel yet.