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Incendiary [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

Chris Cleave
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 11 2011
At once a novel and an open letter to Osama bin Laden, Incendiary is a shocking, hilarious, and heartbreaking debut that crashes head on into huge questions of right and wrong, good and evil, madness and sanity.

Incendiary is the story of a working class woman who likes her simple life: watching Arsenal matches on the telly with her husband and little boy, fishsticks for dinner in their small flat, the occasional trip to the pub.

One spring afternoon the woman, whom we know only by the nickname “Petal”, watches her husband and their son head happily off to Ashburton Grove, Arsenal’s brand new stadium, to see their favourite team play. A few hours later the horror of a terrorist bombing plays out on her television — the bombing of Ashburton Grove.

“Petal” tells her own story in an extraordinary voice, one both desperate and sharply funny, speaking directly to the man responsible for the bombing. She shows the reader an incredible world, a London that is not quite real, in a time that is not quite our own. And as deeply enmeshed as the reader becomes in her reality, a tiny, persistent doubt begins to creep in about just what is reality and what is a manifestation of her griefstricken and distraught imagination.

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.

—excerpt from Indendiary

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

An al-Qaeda bomb attack on a London soccer match provides the tragicomic donnée 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Winner of the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award

“An audacious, provocative voice. Incendiary is stunning in its portrayal of a city living with terror.”
The New York Times

“Stunning. . . . A harrowing and sharply written account of urban panic and the hallucinatory effects of shock.”
The Globe and Mail

“Read Incendiary. And I mean it. Read it. It is outrageous, infuriating, heartbreaking, terrifying and very, very important.”
NOW Magazine

“Cleave’s narrator is one of the strongest, most convincing personalities to grace the pages of literature in years. . . [He] has achieved something magical, creating a character who lives on long after the last page has been read.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Hilariously sympathetic. . . . Cleave has achieved something rare: a black comedy about the war on terrorism and terrorism itself. [Incendiary] 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

“A poignant and compelling novel. . . utterly believable and mesmerizing. . . . Incendiary works not only as a furiously taut evocation of grieving, unhinged mother-love but as a sly political cautionary tale.”

“So timely it stings.”
The Independent (UK)

“A haunting work of art.”

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
This story, of a suicide bomb impact at a London soccer stadium, was released to British bookstores on 7 Jul 2005. On the same day, terrorist bombs killed more than 50 people during London's morning rush hour. What an eerily grisly coincidence.

The narrator of the novel is a working-class English woman and is written in the form of a letter beginning `Dear Osama'. Her husband and son were at the stadium and have been killed: all three remain nameless in this story. The attack takes place at a soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea where eleven suicide bombers infiltrate the game: six wearing fragmentation bombs and five wearing incendiary bombs. And just the day before, the husband, who was a member of the bomb-disposal squad, had decided to find a safer job.

Her world collapses: she happens to be watching the game on television with a journalist from the Sunday Telegraph whom she persuades to drive her to the scene. She is injured and while recovering in hospital she is reunited with her son's cuddly toy - Mr Rabbit.

`Mr Rabbit survived' she writes to Osama. `I still have him. His green ears are black with blood and one of his paws is missing.'

The mother leaves hospital and continues on in her own private hell, supplemented or perhaps exacerbated by an extraordinary relationship with two journalists, and then a policeman. Her continued letter to Osama provides a description of how and why her life has changed while at the same time trying to understand - trying to personalise - the man she believes is behind the attack that has devastated her life, and changed London into a near apocalyptic shell of its former self.

It's a quick read: the momentum of events made it very hard for me to put the novel down.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars gripping narrative Jan. 21 2011
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
I read Chris Cleave's New York Times bestseller Little Bee last year around this time. (Review here) It was a stunningly powerful read. When the chance to read his re-issued first novel, Incendiary, came up I was hesitant. Frankly, I didn't know if I wanted to experience the subject matter, but I find Cleave's writing compelling, so I said yes. And I'm glad I did.

Incendiary is told in the form of a long rambling letter to Osama Bin Laden by an unnamed female narrator. Osama's forces bombed the football stadium where her husband and son were attending a game. They, along with thousands of others, were killed.

"I want to be the last mother in the world who ever has to write a letter like this. Who ever has to write to you Osama about her dead boy."

The narrative rambles and meanders as she attempts to deal with her loss and grief. The lack of puncuation and run on sentences only serve to emphasize her state of mind. Her sorrow and anguish are palpable. The terror and confusion of the aftermath of an attack to both the city and it's citizens is sharply drawn. I was appalled and horrified by some of the situations she finds herself in - the other two supporting characters were quite ugly in many ways - but I couldn't stop turning page after page.

Powerful, moving, yes - humourous, frightening, disturbing, heart breaking, but oh, what an addicting read. I'm saddened to think that she won't be the last mother in the world who will want to write a letter like this....
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4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling April 14 2009
By Shhhh
This book stunned me. Chris Cleave has an amazing way with language and I highly reccomend his second work "Little Bee" as well. I cannot wait to see what else Mr. Cleave creates in the years to come.

This book takes on a tragic aspect of modern life, our fear of terrorism, and in spite of the dark subject little rays of human dignity and humour and pure poetic beauty keep lifting you above the subject.

Clearly I am a fan.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  84 reviews
62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliantly Blazing Book Sept. 7 2005
By Steve Koss - Published on
In the world of post-9/11 literature, great attention has gone to Jonathan Safran Foer's EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Ian McEwan's SATURDAY, and Art Spigelman's IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS. Now comes a first novel less pyrotechnic and histrionic than Foer's, less cold and distant than McEwan's, and less shallow and self-centered than Spigelman's, a book at once more graphically horrifying and touchingly, humanly real than any of them, and it seems to have hardly been noticed. Chris Cleave's INCENDIARY is an extraordinary work, a brilliant discourse on Western culture, class divisions, the meaning of family, and the meaning of freedom (or lack thereof) in an England (or an America) obsessively embroiled in a "war on terror."

Structurally, INCENDIARY takes the form of an extended, Dear Osama letter, written over four seasons by an anonymous, lower middle class housewife whose husband (a bomb squad member for the London police) and four-year-old son were killed in a suicide bombing at an Arsenal football match. At the very moment they were killed, she was engaged in flagrante delicto on her living room sofa with Jasper Black, a well-off social and professional climber who worked as a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. Her lengthy epistle begins as a plea for Osama to stop the terrorism - to "stop making boy-shaped holes in the world" - but evolves as a retelling of her life's downward spiral following May Day, as Londoners come to call their soccer match version of 9/11. She becomes increasingly involved with Paul and his scheming newspaper columnist girlfriend Petra Sutherland, lands a file clerking job with her husband's former boss and anti-terrorism czar Terence Butcher, and ultimately learns a horrifying truth about May Day. The pace of events accelerates in the last fifty pages (the least effective part of this book) and climaxes with another terrorism scare involving the unnamed letter-writer, Jasper, and Petra.

Not surprisingly, INCENDIARY is a book about loss, but not just loss of a husband and a son. Cleave deals with the fallout of terrorism and manmade tragedy: loss of purpose and hope, loss of sanity, loss of principles, and loss of freedom. His heroine loses her identity and seeks to replace it by becoming Petra's upper class double, while at the same time she hallucinates her son's presence and sees bodies bursting into flame or dismembering every time her anxieties flare. INCENDIARY also deals harshly with issues of class - whose lives are worth protecting and whose are expendable - in ways that strikingly foreshadow the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Cleave even takes a veiled poke at Tony Blair and George Bush through Terence Butcher's lament, "It's like the powers that be are poking sticks into the wasps' nests and my job is to run around and stop the wasps stinging us. It's never going to happen. We've simply got to stop doing just a few of the things that make these people want to murder us."

In Cleave's larger, post-May Day London, Muslims are summarily banished from working in hospitals, citizens must abide by a midnight curfew enforced by gun-toting soldiers, the Tower Bridge is closed, the radio is filled with Elton John's newest pop memorial song "England's Heart Is Bleeding" ("...that was going to be number 1 probably forever or at least until the sun and stars burned out like cheap lightbulbs and the universe ended for good and it couldn't come soon enough if you asked me but nobody did."), and the city skies are filled with searchlight-wielding helicopters and hundreds of barrage balloons haplessly called the Shield of Hope. At once a haunting image and a biting slap at post-terrorism "memorials," those barrage balloons are each decorated with the face of one of the 1,003 May Day dead, even as the sun and weather slowly reduce those images to ghostly shadows, as if London was now "defended by ghosts."

What makes INCENDIARY work, however, is not its plot but its voice. Cleave has created a proletarian, homemaking mom ("I am not paranoid I'm working-class there's a difference.") whose edgy life spent busily alphabetizing her shelves while her husband rushed to bomb disposals is shattered by eleven terrorist bombs in a football stadium. His heroine's voice feels surprisingly real, sometimes lost and despairing, other times cynical, and occasionally just desperately trying to understand Why? "Which London is it that Allah especially hates?...The SNEERING TOFFS London [or] the EVIL CRACK MUMS London I mean....I don't see how you can hate the whole of London unless you actually live here on less than 500 quid a week." Along the way, Cleave creates a series of haunting, almost apocalyptic images of a transformed London, "with Tesco bags blowing down [the street] like the ghosts of value shopping" and "cables [from the barrage balloons] disappearing up into the clouds like the weather was bolted onto them."

Cleave's genius here is also in his ambiguity, in his refusal to reduce the "Osama versus the West" struggle to simple black and white. His Londoners are all deeply flawed sinners. INCENDIARY's heroine married at five months pregnant and is a shameless philanderer, her husband and Jasper drink to excess, Jasper succumbs to a massive cocaine habit, Terence cheats on his wife, and Petra is a soulless bitch in Pradas. Cleave makes us empathize with his heroine at the same time that he makes the terrorist attack seem oddly justifiable from a fundamentalist viewpoint. Alternately tragic, poignant, hilarious, and, where it concerns big media and big government, bitterly sarcastic, INCENDIARY is a deeply moving book that deserves at least the readership garnered by Foer and McEwan. I was hooked from the opening page of this book and could hardly put it down until I had finished. INCENDIARY barely alludes to 9/11, but it may well stand as the best (and most deeply human) work of literature to address that subject. I urge you to read this unforgettable book.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chronicling the corrosive aftermath of terrorism. Aug. 6 2005
By David J. Gannon - Published on
Incendiary is as multifaceted, complex and enthralling a novel as I have read in a long time.

Ostensibly this book is about terrorism as represented by a massive suicide bombing at a soccer match in London. In actuality it is about the corrosive aftereffects terrorist acts have on both society and individuals both from the standpoint of dealing with the immediate trauma as well as the more subtle yet equally difficult task of reevaluating ones values and principles to confront an extraordinary yet essentially invisible evil in your own back yard.

The book examines these issues through an artifice-the novel is one long letter from a widow created by the soccer stadium blast to Osama bin laden. I have seen authors use this device before, with a tremendous lack of success, but Chris Cleave pulls it off with aplomb. His unnamed protagonist effectively reflects in her missive the complex dynamics of both her own and society's evolving reactions and responses to the terrorist act.

The book raises many deeply relevant questions. How much of what our narrator feels and acts is a reflection of the act itself or the personal betrayal she was engage din as the act took place? How much of one's values and principles does society wish to abandon to combat the terrorists?

The book also gently ties into the narrative the essentially timeless aspects of these questions. Just as Churchill was faced with the question of what to do about the knowledge he possessed of Nazi intentions (gained through breaking Nazi communications codes), i.e., do we warn people in his target areas and save lives but lose the intelligence pipeline or do we sacrifice those lives to preserve that pipeline? (he chose the latter) the London Police face similar quandaries. The tactics may be new-the war is ancient and ongoing.

The book has some of the flaws one would expect with a debut novel. Some characters appear only to disappear for no apparent reason. Some of the mechanics of the book are stilted and jarring. Not all of the characters are fully fleshed out. Normally these flaws would lead me to lower this to a 4 star rating. However, the highly skilled execution of the letter artifice along with the deeply textured and multifaceted psychological and sociological ruminations of the book, combined with its gripping prose style, overwhelm and minor flaws.

This is an awesome book that everyone in today's world need s to read.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, painful May 9 2006
By Jeremy C - Published on
This book is one of the most emotionally powerful books I've read in a long time. It made me want to cry at times.

The story is basically about a woman who loses her husband and son in a horrific fictional terrorist attack in London (ironically, the book was released either a day before or a day after the London Subway attacks).

The book chronicles her pain and suffering as everything she knows falls apart and she piteously tries to hold on to something, anything.

This book will seriously tear at your heart as you read it.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bracing novel about one woman's response to terrorism Dec 15 2005
By Joseph P. Menta, Jr. - Published on
"Incendiary" takes the form of a first-person narrative of its central protagonist, an unnamed London resident who was wife and mother to two victims of a fictional terrorist attack in Great Britain by Osama Bin Laden (ironically and creepily, however, the novel was released in Great Britain on the same day as the London commuter rail terror attacks). Taking the form of an open letter to the terrorist leader, the novel discusses all aspects of the current debate about terrorists: their motivations, the West's response, how that response now affects every aspect of our lives, and so on. The novel is strongest when it sticks to a former wife and mother honestly asking Osama Bin Laden how mass murder can make the world a better place for anyone, and gets a bit bogged down when the author injects "plot" in the later going, in the form of possible prior knowledge on the part of the British government about the attack. But through it all, the central character's realistic, heartfelt voice- sometimes angry, sometimes sarcastic, and often surprisingly humorous- holds the whole piece together and places this among the most unique and involving novels I've read in some time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED this book! Feb. 25 2011
By relbeis - Published on
I'm really glad I didn't listen to some of the negative reviews I read on here. I just finished this book and I absolutely loved it. One of the best books I've read in a while. I enjoyed Little Bee and I wanted to read more by Chris Cleave. It was a little difficult to get the hang of reading this book. The narrator and main character of the book is clearly not a literary genius, so Cleave didn't write his book that way. Thoughts were choppy and sentences were run ons. But that's what made it unique and real. Once I got used to the writing style, I actually enjoyed this book more than Little Bee. I definitely recommend this book to someone who is open to a different type of book. However, if you are looking for something similar to Little Bee, this is not the book for you.
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