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Incendiary - Chris Cleave

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Chris Cleave / Edition: New edition / Paperback / 256 Pages / Book is published 2006-04-06 by Vintage

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      02.05.2013 10:31
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      A letter to a terrorist that makes readers question how "civilised" Western society really is

      Having read and loved 'The Other Hand' by Chris Cleave, I was keen to read his first novel, 'Incendiary', and snapped it up when I saw it on sale for £2 at my local charity shop.

      The book won several respectable prizes when it was first published and is an international best seller. The author has published three books to date which have all been well-received in literary circles.

      -- The blurb --

      Instead of having a traditional blurb on the back page a nameless narrator tells the reader that she's not a perfect mother, that she cheated and was punished but she loved her child and she will tell you the perfect truth. While this is attention-grabbing, it doesn't actually tell you very much. If you are happily intrigued and don't want to know any more, I suggest you skip over the next section...and possibly the whole body of the review!

      This lack of information is a marketing device that has presumably served Cleave well as his second book has less guidance than this one and the blurb for his third book simply states that it is 'about the limits of human endurance, both physical and emotional'. (Apparently it's actually about Olympic cycling.)

      -- The idea --

      While engaging in an illicit liaison, a woman loses her husband and son in a terrorist attack on a premiership football match. She struggles to cope with her bereavement and her sense of guilt and develops relationships with two journalists and a senior police officer who all have their own connections to the attack and to her. In an effort to prevent more "boy-shaped holes" being made in the world she begins to write a letter to Osama Bin Laden (and, as she reassures him, western leaders, too). After all, while she recognises that The Sun would simply dismiss him as EVIL, she is sure that if he only understood the pain he was causing then he would stop blowing up boys. This book is her letter.

      -- Writing a letter --

      The narrator is working class and lives in Bethnal Green. This is a significant point in itself as much is made in the novel about the different experiences, expectations and treatment of working class and middle class people. Presumably in order to make this background clear, Cleve writes how he feels a woman in this situation in life might. This means that commas are frequently absent and many sentences deliberately 'run on', by which I mean there are also a number of full stops which are simply missing. Initially this irritated me greatly, partly because of my teaching background and partly because punctuation exists for a reason and I did sometimes have to reread bits to make sense of the narrative. Gradually I stopped noticing this so much, although the repeated use of "would of" and "could of" (instead of "would have" and "could have") continued to grate until the end! The narrator also sometimes writes in capital letters when writing something she imagines The Sun using as a headline. Some readers may find this attempt at verisimilitude irritating or even patronising (working class = uneducated, tabloid reading etc.) but it may be worth persevering if your complaint is the former rather than the latter. If it is the latter, you are likely to find that it only gets worse.

      Despite being uneducated the narrator is evidently meant to be wise and witty and makes effective use of metaphor and simile to help describe her world. The narrative is a pleasure to read as the prose has a rhythm of its own even as it describes horrible things.

      Rather than organising the letter into chapters there are simply four sections, one for each season. This seems very appropriate as the story begins in Spring, the season associated with new lives and hope, and gets darker as the seasons change and move closer to winter. The sections are not of equal length and by the time I reached Summer I had forgotten I was reading a section headed Spring! The lack of chapters means it can be difficult to find a good point to put the book down. It also reflects the slightly meandering nature of the story, which is largely chronological but follows the narrator's thought processes as much as actual events. I found this style quite appealing as it felt very immediate and raw, like I was really experiencing the narrator's thoughts.

      For some reason, perhaps to reinforce that this is a diary-style piece of writing, dialogue is prefaced by dashes rather than being identified by speech marks. Again, this was a minor irritation until I became used to it.

      -- Writing a woman --

      Chris Cleave, a male writer, places himself in the mind of a female character, which is no mean feat when imagining her losing her family, having sex and losing her mind. I felt that he did this successfully: if I did not know from reading his previous book that this was a male writer I would not have guessed.

      -- Writing tragedy --

      I found the book became more difficult as it developed. The initial dramatic events are shocking but plausible. However, as the narrative progresses and the narrator's relationships developed I did not find those developments particularly convincing. I thought some of the changes were almost surreal and felt that if I could not believe in what the characters were saying and doing then I could not believe in the story. The journalists, Petra and Jasper, were alternately lovely and awful while often acting rather bizarrely. I have never been in any of the situations the book describes so I could be mistaken about their plausibility but for me this detracted from my enjoyment.

      I also felt that Cleave was using the characters' relationships to make some points about class which I personally was not particularly interested in. Or rather, the way in which the narrator repeatedly commented on class became a little irksome to me.

      More interesting is the erosion of civil liberties that follow the initial incident and how the population reacts. London's reactions to the earlier events and particularly the twist in the middle - which is probably easy to anticipate if you think about it but I didn't and found it shocking - were convincing and very, very frightening. The book certainly develops in tension as it continues and the ending is quite startling as well as sad.

      Despite the plot's focus on a horrific event and its terrible consequences, there is a good amount of humour in the narration, which is essential to stop this becoming completely bleak and depressing (everyone is out for themselves or mad or both). For instance: 'This is London Osama so if I do ever forget to mention the weather you just imagine it's raining and cold and you won't be far off.' The narrator's attempts to converse with the international terrorist that she refers to simply as Osama become increasingly surreal as the narrative continues and she comments on links and divisions between them, theorising about the possibility of him stacking shelves in Tesco's and managing not to behead his fellow workers and record their executions. In this way the humour effectively builds tension as well as helping to release it as the reader can see how tenuous the narrator's grip on reality has become.

      -- Some difficulties --

      I like to read about characters I can respect or perhaps empathise with to some degree, but none of the main characters in this story are particularly nice and and at times they are all utterly repellent. For instance, I am not sure why Cleave chooses to have his narrator fornicating adulterously when the incident happens; I assume it is to help explain her descent into post-traumatic stress disorder, but it means the reader is likely to begin the book by feeling, at best, ambivalent towards a wife who cheats on her husband and leaves her young son alone at home to go to the pub. (Cleave justifies this behaviour in a number of ways but I still found it rather disconcerting.)

      In a horrible coincidence, 'Incendiary' was released to UK bookshops on on July 7th 2005 - the date of terrorist attacks on London tubes and buses (7/7). Given the proximity of the book to the attacks, some reviewers have suggested that Cleave exaggerates the reaction of politicians and public in her fiction. Reading about the restrictions in place in the novel I felt that perhaps Cleave did have rather less faith in Londoners than he could have done. Cleave has noted that there is a difference in magnitude between the event he imagines and the events of 7/7, and has suggested that there are more similarities than we might, as a society, like to admit. Regardless, when I was reading the book it reminded me more of a dystopian vision of the future - like we find in Orwell's '1984' or Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' - than a feasible reality in today's England. However, that may well be just my naivety speaking and the measures taken in the novel did not seem completely implausible. Furthermore, when comparing the developments in London to the developments in the characters' relationships the former began to seem positively convincing!

      Perhaps the biggest problem is simply the bleakness of Cleave's vision. Despite the often almost jaunty tone in which the nameless narrator recounts what happens to her, she gradually sickens of the world around her - and so does the reader - until she, and we, are forced to question to what extent this is a world worth saving. This is not a cheery beach read and such pessimism will not suit all tastes.

      -- The film --

      There is a film based on the novel but a quick read of the synopsis confirms that it takes a significantly different direction to the book, so if you have seen and enjoyed the film you will want to be aware that the book is much darker.

      -- Conclusions --

      I am still not entirely sure what I thought of this book. It was a powerful and compelling read - I read it in two days - which was beautifully written despite the deliberately uneducated style of narration. The subject matter is an important one and Cleave makes valuable points about the dangers inherent in an emotional response to terrorism. The rush of events compels you onwards and the moments of humour sparkle in what is otherwise really rather grim reading. I think it is definitely worth reading, but 'enjoyment' is not quite the result. In a word: disturbing.

      Most readers seem to love it or hate it, which is worth £7.99 of anyone's money. (Even if you hate it you'll have plenty to think about and to say about it.) This seems to be the standard price point for a book of this sort of format and length (338 pages) although it is available for less in all the usual places online. Although I still can't quite decide if I liked it, I found it very powerful and am glad that I read it. I will continue to keep an eye out for other books by Cleave and to recommend 'The Other Hand' in particular.

      Read this if: 

      - you are interested in powerful stories that deal with loss, grief and madness;
      - you have enjoyed other books by Cleave due to his writing style, or enjoy books which make poetic use of prose;
      - you are interested in reading about the impact terrorism can have on places and lives.

      Avoid this if:

      - deliberate lack of punctuation and grammatical errors are likely to annoy you to the extent that you cannot enjoy the story they help to shape;
      - you are of a particularly sensitive or squeamish disposition as there is some description of the dead and dying (this is graphic without being gory so my sensitive stomach was fine);
      - you like a simple story with at least one primary character you can like or admire without significant reservations.

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        26.10.2011 23:27
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        A thought provoking book that is frighteningly close to reality

        Chris Cleave "Incendiary"
        ISBN 978-0-340-99848-9
        Bookcrossing ID 923-8591551
        "Cleave's heroine is in turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing" Lawrence Norfolk -'Sunday Telegraph'

        A year or so ago I read Chris Cleaves' The Other Hand" which I found very different, quite disturbing and a book that really challenged my beliefs and made me think about what I would have done if faced with the same situation as the lead character. This book was actually written before 'The Other hand' but is equally thought provoking and is an equally uncomfortable yet compelling read.

        Incendiary is Chris Cleave's first novel and it has been published in twenty countries. It won the Somerset Maugham Award and was listed for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in 2006.
        " Incendiary" eerily predicted the bombings on the London Tube and rather sinisterly hit British bookstores that same day which is quite disturbing as this is a work of fiction but in many ways reading this after the event it seems a story based on events rather than almost predicting them as so much that happened in the book was similar to things that happened post the bombings in London.

        The lead character is a fairly ordinary, east end of London, young house wife and mother who lives in a tower block and is married to a bomb disposal expert. She loves her husband and is a devoted mother, she gets annoyed and concerned as her husband rather enjoys gambling. She however also has a dark secret. When she is worried about her husband disposing a bomb she sleeps with other men. We never know her name so I will refer to her as the narrator or wife for the purpose of this review.

        The book starts ' Dear Osama' and in fact the entire book is a letter written by the narrator, this lady, to Osama (presumably Bin Laden) telling him how his acts of terrorism have ruined her life and that of many others. It is written as a young East Ender would write with London colloquialisms and in a very conversational way, not formal at all. It is rather as if she is writing to a friend really explaining about her life and her family, the way she feels and what happened to her and her husband and son during the incident and how it has impacted on her life. If you are one of those readers who find that grammar has to be correct then you could find this annoying.


        I found the writing style suited the story and was very different and somewhat compelling. The narrator writes just as she would speak with little care for correct use of language, her thoughts jumping straight onto the page. Capitalization is used for emphasis and her sentences gather pace as she gets more and more emotional thus drawing the reader into her world.

        The event that changes her life is a terrorist attack by 11 suicide bombers who set these bombs off one Saturday at a football match inside the Arsenal stadium. The attack results in several thousand deaths and a major security response from the authorities which impact on the lives of Londoners. The book explores the unnamed woman's feelings of grief and guilt and stumbles through the following year with her as she struggles to cope with what has happened.

        The husband and son are at the match but worse the wife is at home watching this on television having sex with a casual acquaintance when the stadium goes up in flames. She writes this letter as she wrestles with this guilt disgusted with her behaviour especially as it was actually as her husband and son died. Although she is obviously far from the perfect wife and mother as you read about how she feels you do feel some sympathy for her. Her grief and suffering is quite raw and the fact that she describes her feelings in her own way rather than being poetic or airy fairy makes it even more poignant.

        I didn't find this an easy read emotionally. The descriptions written by the narrator in her letter to Osama describe in vivid detail the stadium just after the bombing and how she hunted through the remains for her 'men'. It really was extremely graphic and didn't leave a lot out at all.
        I found the letter writing style to be quite an effective way - and in case you forget during the book that she is writing to Osama, she often writes things such as 'well Osama, I don't know ...' just to bring it back to you and it does make you wonder what his reaction would be to reading a very personal and emotional letter from an ordinary person.

        Chris Cleave is an educated middle class man and he writes this through the eyes and words of a 'working class' East Ender and I think he carries this off very well. At no time did I feel his voice coming through. The narrator is a tough lady who has been dealt a real emotional hit in the stomach and he makes the reader sympathise with her even though her behavior and actions are not always likeable.

        What I found interesting is that although this was written prior to the London bombings a lot of what happens afterwards does take place. The anti Muslim behavior and attitude he writes about did indeed happen for quite some time, in fact there is still an underlying anti Muslim feeling around in the UK . The other rather drastic security measures that are described in the book fortunately have not happened but the feeling of unease and tension felt after the London bombings were certainly very similar to those felt and described by the narrator in the book.

        As I said this is not a comfortable read, it is shocking and emotional. It makes you think about how you would react after going through a life changing event. In some ways practicalities are talked about, she now has no income and a flat to pay for so she gets a job but in other ways practicalities are skipped over, such as what happened to the car that they went to the football match in, did she has insurance on her husband's life and the car that she could have had some money from to help her cope financially? Maybe I am thinking too practically as the book is really about emotions but I am a very practical person so find things like this important.

        I can't say I enjoyed this as 'enjoy' is the wrong word for a book like this. It is a thought provoking read and is definitely a bit of an emotional roller coaster. I found that after I finished reading this I felt quite emotionally drained and couldn't read another book for a day or so as I was still thinking of this. I think Chris Cleave is a challenging writer; his writing style in this really took the reader in to the world of the narrator, into her life and her thoughts. It is a clever piece of modern fiction based on events that could actually happen which makes it even more believable.

        I would recommend this but be prepared for some graphic descriptions and some pretty shocking scenes. The central character is very human, a young lady who has been dealt a very hard blow but comes back fighting. You find that you are really hoping that she gets her life sorted and is able to cope with the horror of what happened to her. The book I found gripping and compelling, I couldn't put it down and even after I had finished it I had it in the back if my mind for days after wards.
        I enjoyed his other book and wrote a review on that as well on both ciao and dooyoo so if you want to know more take a look at that review too.

        Thanks for reading. I hope this has been of some interest. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
        ©Catsholiday

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          10.08.2011 11:05
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          best book I've read in an age

          With time on my hands inbetween finishing college and starting uni I've had time to take up one of my favorite hobbies again, reading.

          My boyfriend works as a bin man and collects paper bags for recycling from time to time he finds books and brings them home. last week he bought home two books by Chris Cleave an author I'm unfamiliar with.
          I read the blurb on the back of both and decided to start with Incendiary, the main reason being the blurb made the novel sound interesting but it never actually gave anything about the story away.

          The blurb was written as if the main character had written it. Here is what is says.
          You aren't stupid. You know there is no such thing as a perfect mother. Plenty of other books will tell you there is, but this one won't lie to you.
          I was weak and I cheated and I was punished, but my god I loved my child through all of it. Love means you never break, and it means you're stronger than the things they do to you. I know this is true because I have been through fire, and I am proof that love survives.
          I am not a perfect mother but I will tell you the perfect true because this is you and me talking. This is my story.
          i was intrigued to say the least and even more so when I began to read. The novel is written completely in epistolary form, a letter from a working class mother in Bethnal Green to Osama Bin Laden. At first I found this hard to get my head around but now I can't imagine a more perfect way for it to be written.
          Our protagonist never gives away her name, begins the letter my telling Bin Laden about her back ground, how she married a policeman in the bomb squad, their four year old son, how she suffers from her nerves, and how, when she is particularly nervous she commits adultery.
          She begins to disclose details of one particular night when she meets Jasper Black in her local pub, a posh upper class journalist who she ends up sleeping with,she then meets him again on May Day. her husband has taken her son to the Arsenal V Chelsea match , while making love with Jasper on her couch they see the televised horror of the stadium being blown up.
          Islamic extremists are to blame and the death toll reaches 1008.
          This isn't just the story of how one mother begins to cope with the tragic death of her husband and son but how a whole city copes in the wake of such an atrocity.

          I would love to say more about the story but I feel like I would give too many spoilers away.
          As the book is written as one long letter there are no chapters, it is however split into seasons starting with Spring and ending in Winter.
          Despite her faults, the main character is witty, funny, clever and completely likable, in spite of her loss she keeps some sense of humor and she calls a spade a spade which is always a good quality. The upper class characters Jasper and Petra are harder to like , just because they don't understand the working class world, yet they are people everyone will recognise.
          I was surprised to find out that the author was male, I had assumed Chris was short for Christine as this is so well written from a woman and mother's perspective. He began writing this novel in 2004, inspired by becoming a first time father and the bombings ion Madrid, it made him think about what would happen if that happened in London. The day after the novels launch party on 6th July 2005, it did. Spooky but the novel reflects the horror felt by the nation.
          The book has got every ingredient for a great novel, mystery, intrigue, love, sex. conspiracy and humor. it's very hard to put down, I just wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next.
          The ending is neither happy nor sad, it could only be described as real. I personally can't wait to read more novels by this author.

          Incendiary won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award, was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize, won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction award 2005 and won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.
          It has been published in 20 countries and is an international best seller.
          Overall
          I think I may have just found my new favorite author (but will keep you posted on that). I would highly recommend this novel to anyone, it's not just for women and mothers.

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            17.03.2010 22:15
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            love, loss, class, humour, terrorism - it's not dull

            "My flat smells of chips. I do very ordinary things like go down the shops and get my family blown to bits."

            Chris Cleave has published two novels; Incendiary and The Other Hand, (published as Little Bee in the US). For the past two years he has also written a weekly column in the family section of The Guardian. Both his books have been awarded or shortlisted for literary prizes with Incendiary winning the Somerset Maugham award in 2006. I was looking at his books in Waterstones recently and probably chose this one over 'The Other Hand' because of the extract on the back in which the narrator talks about not being a perfect mother, something I felt I could identify with. I wasn't too sure about it as he was a new author to me, but I wanted to use up a gift voucher, so added it to my other choices as a wild card. I read it in one day. The chatty intimate style of writing drew me straight in and kept me there.

            The concept of the book is that it is a letter to Osama Bin Laden, written by a British woman who lost her husband and son in a terrorist attack, (In a strange coincidence it was published on 7 July 2005, the day of the London bombings). The attack results in several thousand deaths and a heavy handed response from the authorities. The book explores the unnamed woman's feelings of grief and guilt and stumbles through the following year with her as she struggles to cope with what has happened.

            It is written as the protagonist would speak, so if you're a stickler for grammar it might annoy you - not many commas. I found the writing style compelling; sentences tumble out at breakneck speed, building tension and making it hard not to fly through the pages. Occasionally the text lurches into capitals, usually when something happens that tallies with something 'The Sun' might say, such as the SNEERING TOFF our heroine meets at her local or the BRAVE 82 YEAR OLD GRAN she meets in hospital. This is often amusing, and it's also useful for the expression of strong emotions. It manages to highlight the way media cliches get into our minds and become part of us, shaping and forming our beliefs no matter how impervious we think we are, even if we don't read tabloids.

            Cleave claims he wrote the first draft of Incendiary in six weeks, shortly after the birth of his first child, at which time he was feeling fearful and angry about the way in which our leaders were making the world a more dangerous place for his child to grow up in. That energy is apparent in the feisty nature of the book's heroine who seems driven by an irresistible force. Once or twice I felt the voice in which it was written wasn't quite right. This working class Sun reader seemed a bit too clever, or her actions didn't ring a hundred per cent true. Perhaps because I knew it had been written by a man I felt the sex scenes in particular to be a touch awry. At one point the main character is wondering what the SNEERING TOFF, who she forms a relationship with, wants with her and asks if he gets a thrill from slumming it. This made me wonder if on some level it was Cleave himself represented as the toff in the book and wondering why he needed to write the story from a working class woman's perspective. Nonetheless, it was a brave thing to do for a first novel and most of the time it works, probably because the narrator is relentlessly funny, reckless and endearing, despite being a far from perfect human being.

            There are other problems: some scenes in the book are gory and, I felt, sensationalist; there is a lot of dark humour that veers into tastelessness at times; towards the end it gets a bit muddled and hysterical, although this could be an intentional parallel with the emotional climate of the UK in recent years, as well as reflecting the heroine's own sadness and confusion. As an imagining of a post terror attack London, Incendiary was doomed to fail as we unfortunately are in the position of knowing the real British response to such an attack. As a reaction to the media hysteria surrounding all things Muslim however, it works somewhat better and controversially, even questions the idea that Bin Laden is an EVIL MONSTER. It's main strength though, is it's heroine, whose voice is a wail of grief, rage, frustration and a sigh of despair at the state of the world in which we live, but also a celebration of the strength of a mother's love for her child. Despite it's faults I couldn't put this down, the overall style and content were highly entertaining which made all flaws forgivable. In short it was a RIPPING YARN which had me HOOKED.

            Further info (latest edition) - Paperback: 352 pages, Publisher: Sceptre (13 Aug 2009), currently available for £4.78 from Amazon.

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              01.03.2009 00:51
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              Something a bit unique

              This was (or is) a controversial book, it is the debut novel by Chris Cleave and is based around the (fictional) traumatic event of a terrorist attack on a football stadium in London. This book was coincidentally published on the day of the London bombings.

              It focuses on the story of the main character and narrator who loses her son and husband in the attack - 11 suicide bombers who create an inferno in the Arsenal stadium. This is not always an easy read; it goes into detail of the attack and describes the torment of the people who suffered.

              She is filled with guilt as the drama unfolded she was with another man, something she frequently did and they both watched the TV as the stadium exploded. She wrestles with this guilt as she loved her husband but is disgusted with her actions while this was happening. Although far from perfect you do sympathise with her and it is heart-breaking at times as she describes her feelings and immense grief in detail.

              A unique part of this book is that it is told through a letter; the narrator writes to Osama Bin Laden to tell him about the effects of terrorism, not only on her family but also the UK as a whole. It is an effective way of writing the book - and it makes you wonder whether he would actually read the book in real-life as well. However, you do sometimes forget that she is writing a letter to him.

              Not much actually happens after the dramatic start but it focuses on the narrator trying to rebuild her life which she feels is now empty as she comes to terms with living on her own in an ex-council house.

              It is unusual for a middle-class male to write as a working class female but I actually think he does a good job of this - he does seem to understand what life would be like for her and creates a sympathetic character, although not necessarily likeable.

              Chris Cleave does not write books which are easy to read, the subject matters are not light-hearted but they are gripping. This book is a mix of genres; part chick lit, part thriller and would probably be classed as contemporary literature so this is a good book if you want to read something original and different.

              I would also recommend his other book - 'The Other Hand' which is based on another horrific event which sets off a change of events for a couple but this time it start on an African beach.

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