From the Publisher
“Cleave has achieved something rare. . . . [The narrator] will break your heart and remind you how, in the face of the uncontrollable and the inexplicable, humor can allow one to survive.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“An audacious, provocative voice . . . [Cleave] has a clear and disturbing vision of the psychological effects of an attack on a city population.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In Cleave’s gripping story…[his] portrayal of a woman unraveling in the face of overwhelming grief is both compelling and haunting…‘Incendiary reminds us that in the face of uncontrollable and unimaginable tragedy, humor and words can provide comfort, but ultimately each of us must search deep within ourselves for the resilience to survive…’ The heroine’s plea to Bin Laden is at once filled with despair, rage, and acerbic wit… it is about more than just one mother’s loss. It’s also a subtle political commentary on the loss of principles, loss of respect, loss of freedoms, and loss of innocence that can surface in a city or nation after a terrorist attack. Like the blast itself, the emotions consume all those in its path…Incendiary suggests that even amid the rubble of a terrorist attack, we can gain a glimpse of hope for a better future, stay open to hidden gifts in one’s life, and perhaps even discover that we are capable of forgiveness of our own fragility and carelessness as well as that of others.”—Boston Globe
“Fiction can be a highly effective way of depicting terror… because fine writing – and Incendiary is a very fine example – is such an eloquent human instrument.” —The Economist
“Sensitive, artful, and deft. . . . Cleave’s Orwellian look at the way we live 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. . . . A near-perfect debut that will give the reader nightmares that may seem far too real on waking.”—The Sun (Baltimore)
“Cleave…has a phenomenal talent for melodrama, a dishy, vicious sense of humor, and a sprinter’s force as a writer.” —New York Observer
“The eloquence of Cleave’s heroine is equal to the atrocity that claims her family. She is by turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing. … The unnamed ‘I’ of Incendiary is a true survivor.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"Dear Osama," a woman writes, "you blew up my husband and boy." With stark simplicity, these words begin a story that's as unsettling as it is compelling. After a suicide bomb at a London soccer match, a young wife and mother is forced to confront the unthinkable. In a voice filled with despair, this unnamed narrator begins a letter to Osama bin Laden. She writes so he will "see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind."
With her familiar life blown to pieces, the letter is a cri de coeur and an attempt to convince Osama to stop his campaign of terror. But this is only the beginning. With London under a virtual lockdown and every scrap of life she knew gone in one terrible moment, she talks her way into a job aiding the police in their investigation. Befriended by a journalist and his girlfriend, she is drawn into a psychological tangle of subterfuge that threatens her sanity and her life. And when London faces yet another attack, she finds herself under siege, on the run, and witness to a desperation and violence she could never have fathomed.
Undeniably provocative and stunningly bold, with a vision as macabre as it is chillingly realistic, Incendiary is a keenly imaginative first novel, lit by the times we know.
(Fall 2005 Selection)
How are we left at the end of this gruesome and grueling saga? Strangely light-headed, as if we have lived through happenings in another world, a world brought brutally to life by current events. This is Chris Cleave's first novel. My imagination can't stretch to where he could go from here.
The Washington Post
An al-Qaeda bomb attack on a London soccer match provides the tragicomic donnee of former Daily Telegraph journalist Cleave's impressive multilayered debut: a novel-length letter from an enraged mother to Osama bin Laden. Living hand to mouth in London's East End, the unnamed mother's life is shattered when her policeman husband (part of a bomb disposal unit) and four-year-old son are killed in the stadium stands. Complicating matters: our narrator witnesses the event on TV, while in the throes of passion with her lover, journalist Jasper Black. The full story of that day comes out piecemeal, among rants and ruminations, complete with the widow's shell-shocked sifting of the stadium's human carnage. London goes on high terror alert; the narrator downs Valium and gin and clutches her son's stuffed rabbit. After a suicide attempt, she finds solace with married police superintendent Terrence Butcher and in volunteer work. When the bomb scares escalate, actions by Jasper and his girlfriend Petra become the widow's undoing. 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. Agent, Jennifer Joel at ICM. First printing 100,000. (Aug. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Avi Kramer
Cleave's debut novel is, in its entirety, a letter that his unnamed female narrator is writing to Osama bin Laden ("Dear Osama," it begins) after a suicide bombing at a London soccer match has killed her husband and four-year-old son. Her sentences run on without filter or punctuation, and the action never ceases. Her voice, rife with the deepest hurt and anger yet full of compassion and a sense of humor, somehow reveals the similar humanness in a Saudi terrorist and a working-class mother from London's East End. She speaks to him in her letter as if they were old acquaintances, and while the loss of her husband and son consumes her every minute, it is the humor she finds that keeps her going. Within her letter is a political admonition about the war on terror and its societal ramifications. She makes pointed references to the fact that after the bombing, the upper-class sections of London receive greater security from another possible attack. Of a trip through the wealthy Knightsbridge district, she writes, "It looked like the authorities were determined to not let your men get anywhere near the fashion shops Osama." Cleave's is a London in dire straits, both under repressive police law and on the verge of total anarchy. While flipped-over cars burn in the streets, helicopters patrol the neighborhoods, their high beams searching for people out after curfew. The angst palpitates: "Everyone was trying to get home before curfew. The choppers battered away into the darkness making a noise like death and nobody wanted reminding about dying." Ultimately, the narrator represents, in a way, all of London in her personal anguish, and, amidst the chaos and her own poverty, a determination tofight and live another day.
Cleave's auspicious debut takes the form of a woman's letter to Osama bin Laden. A suicide bombing at a London sporting event leaves the city gripped by fear: 1000 are dead and many more irrevocably damaged by the experience. The author of the letter is a working-class woman whose husband and young son were killed in the blast. Afterward, haunted by visions of her son and other bombing victims, she teeters on the edge of reality, vacillating between hope and desperation. The narrator, whose name we never learn, goes on to develop a perverse relationship with an upper-class couple and take a job in the police department to help fight the war against terrorism. Graphic depictions of violence and gore accompany humorous reflections on life and class differences-an odd combination that makes for strangely compelling reading. Recommended for larger public libraries.-Sarah Conrad Weisman, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
A grieving widow and mother composes a letter to Osama Bin Laden. At points, Cleave's oddly elegant debut novel about the soul-corroding effects of modern terrorism seems like something George Orwell might have written during the Blitz, had he been a little less concerned with the niceties of punctuation. Cleave opens with a high-wire burst of stream-of-consciousness grief on the part of a youngish but now careworn woman whose husband and son have been killed in a horrific suicide attack on the Arsenal football stadium: "I saw the video you made Osama where you said the West was decadent. Maybe you mean the West End? We aren't all like that. London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking." Sinking into her mourning, she attempts to comfort herself with the thought that at least her son died in the company of his beloved father. It is not enough; sadness gives way to denial, and denial gives way to fury as the bereaved of London begin to suspect that the government knew something about the impending carnage and did nothing to stop it. Our narrator falls in with a fiercely ambitious columnist and an investigative journalist, with whom she had a brief, formless affair before the attack. Working as a civilian in an antiterrorist police unit at Scotland Yard, and urged on by her confidants, she discovers bits and pieces of information that, just in time for a new attack, collectively do much to slip the tether off whatever small mooring she has left in the world: "It is Christmas Eve Osama and this morning I decided you were right after all. . . . Some people are cruel and selfish and the world would be better off without them."Whoknows what? Whom can we trust? Like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Cleave's provocative debut will make readers a little uneasy-and that's okay. First printing of 100,000
Read an Excerpt
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 Dexy's 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 Shoreditch and grassed you to the old bill. Well. I wouldn't know how to spend 25 million dollars. It's not as if I've got anyone to spend it on since you blew up my husband and my boy.
That's my whole point you see. I don't want 25 million dollars Osama I just want you to give it a rest. AM I ALONE? I want to be the last mother in the world who ever has to write you a letter like this. Who ever has to write to you Osama about her dead boy.
Now about the writing. The last thing I wrote was N/A on an income support form that wanted NAME OF SPOUSE OR PARTNER. So you see I'll do my best but you'll have to bear with me because I'm not a big writer. 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 in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son. What could be more natural?
I know you can love my boy Osama. The Sun says you are an EVIL MONSTER but I don't believe in evil I know it takes 2 to tango. I know you're vexed at the leaders of Western imperialism. Well I'll be writing to them too.
As for you I know you'd stop the bombs in a second if I could make you see my boy with all your heart for just one moment. I know you would stop making boy shaped holes in the world. It would just make you too sad. So I will do my best with these words Osama. I suppose you can see they don't come natural to me but I hope this letter reaches you anyway. I hope it finds you before the Americans do otherwise I'm going to wish I hadn't bothered aren't I?
Well Osama if I'm going to show you my boy I have to start with where he lived and I still do. I live in London England which I agree with you is a bad place in lots of ways but I was born here so what can you do? London looks like a rich place from the outside but we are most of us very poor here. I saw the video you made Osama where you said the West was decadent. Maybe you meant the West End? We aren't all like that. London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking.
My family was never rotten poor we were hard up there's a difference. We were respectable we kept ourselves presentable but it was a struggle I don't mind telling you. We were not the nice front teeth or the rotten back teeth of London and there are millions of us just like that. The middle classes put up web sites about us. If you're interested Osama just put down that Kalashnikov for a second and look up chav pikey ned or townie in Google. Like I say there are millions of us but now there's a lot less than there were of course. I miss them so bad my husband and my boy especially.
My husband and my boy and me lived on Barnet Grove which is a road that goes from Bethnal Green to Shoreditch. There are 2 kinds of places on Barnet Grove. The first kind are very pricey old terraced houses. The estate agents call them Georgian Gems With Extensive Potential For Conversion To Fully Appointed Executive Flats With Easy Access To The City Of London And Within A Stone's Throw Of The Prestigious Colombia Road Flower Market. The second kind of places are places like ours. They are flats in dirty brick tower blocks they smell of chip fat inside. All the flats in each block are the same except that the front doors don't match on account of they get kicked in as often as they get opened nicely. They built our tower blocks in the Fifties. They built them in the gaps where the Georgian Gems had incendiaries dropped on them by Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler was the last chap who hated London as much as you do Osama. The Sun called him the MOST EVIL MAN IN HISTORY and he made the gaping hole in Barnet Grove that they built our tower block in. I suppose it was thanks to him we could afford to live Within A Stone's Throw Of The Prestigious Colombia Road Flower Market so maybe Adolf Hitler was not all bad in the long run.
Like I say our flat was in one of those tower blocks. It was a small flat and you could hear the upstairs neighbours on the job. They used to start uh uh uh very soft at first and then louder and louder uh uh oh my god UH and after a bit you could listen as hard as you liked and still not know if you were hearing love or murder. It used to drive my husband crazy but at least our flat was warm and clean and it was ours. It was an ex-council flat which is to say we owned it. Which is to say we didn't have to struggle to pay the rent. We struggled to pay the mortgage each month instead there is a difference and that difference is called EMPOWERMENT.
I didn't work I looked after our boy. My husband's wages paid the mortgage and not much else so by the end of the month things were always a bit wobbly. My husband was a copper and he wasn't just any old copper he was in bomb disposal. You might reckon bomb disposal wages would of stretched a bit further Osama but you'd reckon wrong if you didn't reckon with the horses the dogs the cock fights in the back room of the Nelson's Head and whether it was going to be a white Christmas. My husband was the sort of bloke who'd take a punt on anything so thank god he had a better track record with bombs than the 11.31 at Doncaster. When we were behind on the bills I used to get teeth chattering scared of the bailiffs Osama. Whenever I could squeeze a fiver out of the shopping money I used to stash it under the carpet just in case my husband blew everything one day and they chucked us out on our ear. There was never more than a month of mortgage under the rug so we were always less than 31 days away from the street or only 28 days if my husband blew the lot in February which sod's law he would wouldn't he? But I couldn't hold his flutters against him on account of he needed a thing to take his mind off the nerves and his thing was no worse than mine Osama I'll tell you about my thing in a minute.
In bomb disposal the call can come at any time of the day or night and for my husband it often did. If the call came in the evening we would be sitting in front of the telly. Not saying much. Just sitting there with plates on our knees eating chicken kievs. I didn't make them myself I wouldn't know how. They were Findus they were more or less okay they were always his favourite.
Anyway the telly would be on and we'd probably be watching Top Gear. My husband knew a lot about motors. We never could afford a new motor ourselves but my husband knew how to pick a good second hand one. We mostly had Vauhxall Astras they never let us down. They used to sell off the old police Astras you see. They'd give them a respray but if the light was right you could always see POLICE showing out from under the paint job. I suppose a thing can never really change its nature Osama.
Anyway we'd be watching Top Gear and the phone would go and my husband would put his plate down on the sofa and take the phone next door. He wasn't supposed to tell me anything about the job but when he came back through the lounge there was one sure way to tell if it was serious. They always knew which were the real bombs and which were most probably just hoaxes. If it was a hoax my husband would sit back down on the sofa and gobble the rest of his chicken kiev before he left the flat. It only took him 30 secs but he never did that if it was serious. When it was serious he just picked up his jacket and walked straight out.
When it was serious I used to wait up for him. Our boy would be asleep so there was only the telly to take my mind off things. Not that it ever would of course. After Top Gear there was Holby City and then it would be Newsnight. Holby made you nervous about death and chip pan fires and Newsnight made you nervous about life and money so between the both of them they could get you in a right state and leave you wondering why you bothered with the licence fee. But I had to keep the telly on in case anything happened and there was a news flash.
So I used to just sit there Osama watching the telly and hoping it would stay boring. When your husband works in bomb disposal you want the whole world to stay that way. Nothing ever happening. Trust me you want a world run by Richard & Judy. At night I always watched the BBC. I never watched the other side because I couldn't stand the adverts. A woman with nice hair telling how this or that shampoo stops split ends. Well. It made me feel a bit funny when I was waiting to see if my husband had got himself blown up. It made me feel quite poorly actually.
There's a lot of bombs in London these days Osama on account of if you've got a message for the nation then it's actually quite hard to get on Richard & Judy so it's easier just to stick a few old nails and bolts into a Nike bag of fertiliser. Half the poor lonely sods in town are making a bomb these days Osama I hope you're proud of yourself. The coppers make 4 or 5 of them safe every week and another 1 or 2 go off and make holes in people and often as not it's the coppers on the scene who get the holes put in them. They don't show it on the news any more on account of it would give people the screaming abdabs. I'm not big on numbers Osama but once late at night I worked out the odds on my husband getting blown up one day and ever since then I had the screaming abdabs all on my own. It was practically a dead cert I swear not even Ladbrokes would of taken your money.
Sometimes the sun would be up before my husband came home. The breakfast show would be on the telly and there'd be a girl doing the weather or the Dow Jones. It was all a bit pointless if you ask me. I mean if you wanted to know what the weather was doing you only had to look out the window and as for the Dow Jones well you could look out of the window or you could not. You could please yourself because it's not as if there was anything you could do about the Dow Jones either way. My whole point is I never gave a monkey's about any of it. I just wanted my husband home safe.
When he finally came in it was such a relief. He never said much because he was so tired. I would ask him how did it go? And he would look at me and say I'm still here ain't I? My husband was what the Sun would call a QUIET HERO it's funny how none of them are NOISY I suppose that wouldn't be very British. Anyway my husband would drink a Famous Grouse and go to bed without taking his clothes off or brushing his teeth because as well as being QUIET he sometimes COULDN'T BE ARSED and who could blame him? When he was safe asleep I would go to look in on our boy.
Our boy had his own room it was cracking we were proud of it. My husband built his bed in the shape of Bob the Builder's dump truck and I sewed the curtains and we did the painting together. In the night my boy's room smelled of boy. Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers. My boy slept on his side sucking Mr Rabbit's paws. I sewed Mr Rabbit myself he was purple with green ears. He went everywhere my boy went. Or else there was trouble. My boy was so peaceful it was lovely to watch him sleep so still with his lovely ginger hair glowing from the sunrise outside his curtains. The curtains made the light all pink. They slept very quiet in the pink light the 2 of them him and Mr Rabbit. Sometimes my boy was so still I had to check he was breathing. I would put my face close to his face and blow a little bit on his cheek. He would snuffle and frown and fidget for a while then go all soft and still again. I would smile and tiptoe backwards out of his room and close his door very quiet.
Mr Rabbit survived. I still have him. His green ears are black with blood and one of his paws is missing.
Now I've told you where my boy came from Osama I suppose I ought to tell you a bit more about his mum before you get the idea I was some sort of saint who just sewed fluffy toys and waited up for her husband. I wish I was a saint because it was what my boy deserved but it wasn't what he got. I wasn't a perfect wife and mum in fact I wasn't even an average one I was what the Sun would call a DIRTY LOVE CHEAT.
My husband and my boy never found out oh thank you god. But I can say it now they're both dead and I don't care who reads it. It can't hurt them anymore. I loved my boy and I loved my husband but sometimes I saw other men too. Or rather they saw me and I didn't make much of an effort to put them off and one thing sometimes led to another. You know what men are like Osama you trained half a million of them yourself they are RAVENOUS LOVE RATS.
Sex is not a beautiful and lovely 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 across the tops 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.
And when I get nervous about all the horrible things in the world I just need something very soft and secret and warm to make me forget it for a bit. I didn't even know what it was till I was 14. It was one of our mum's boyfriends who showed me but I won't write his name or he'll get in trouble. I suppose he was a SICK CHILD PREDATOR but I still remember how lovely it felt. Afterwards he took me for a drive through town and I just smiled and looked out at all the hard faces and the homeless drifting past the car windows and they didn't bother me for the moment. I was just smiling and thinking nothing much.
Ever since then whenever I get nervous I'll go with anyone so long as they're gentle. I'm not proud I know it's not an excuse and I've tried so hard to change but I can't. It's deep under my skin like a tat they can never quite remove. It's like you can never stop our Astra saying POLICE down the side. The letters bulge up under the paint job and anyone who's really looking can read them. Oh sometimes I feel so tired.
I'll tell you about one night in particular Osama. You'll see it isn't true I always used to wait up for my husband. One night last spring he got called out on a job and while I was waiting up for him the telly made me very anxious. It was one of those politics talk shows and everyone was trying to talk at once. It was like they were on a sinking ship fighting over the last life jacket and I couldn't stand it. I ran into the kitchen and started tidying to take my mind off things only the problem was it was already tidy. The trouble is when I get nervous I always tidy and I get nervous a lot and there's only so much tidying a small flat can take. I looked around the kitchen I was hopping from foot to foot I was getting desperate. The oven was clean the chip pan was sparkling and all the tins in the cupboards were in alphabetical order with their labels facing outwards. Apple slices Baked beans Custard and so on it was a real problem it was effing perfect I didn't know what to do with myself so I started biting my nails. I can bite till my fingers bleed when I get like that but very luckily just then I had a flash of genius I realized I never had alphabetised the freezer had I? I'm good like that Osama sometimes things just come to me. So I opened up the freezer and dumped out all the food onto the floor and put it back in its right order from top to bottom. Alphabites Burgers Chips Drumsticks Eclairs Fish fingers I could go on but the point is all the time I was doing this I was very happy and I never once imagined my husband cutting the wrong wire on a home made nail bomb and being blown into chunks about the size of your thumb. The trouble was as soon as all the packets were back in the freezer that's exactly what I started seeing. So then I did what anyone would do in my situation Osama I went down the pub.