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Synopses & Reviews
A distraught woman writes a letter to Osama bin Laden after her four-year-old son and her husband are killed in a massive suicide bomb attack at a soccer match in London. In an emotionally raw voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, she tries to convince Osama to abandon his terror campaign by revealing to him the desperate sadness — "I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself" — and the broken heart of a working-class life blown apart.
But the bombing is only the beginning. While security measures transform London into a virtual occupied territory, the narrator, too, finds herself under siege. At first she gains strength by fighting back, taking a civilian job with the police to aid the antiterrorist effort. But when she becomes involved with an upper-class couple, she is drawn into a psychological maelstrom of guilt, ambition, and cynicism that erodes her faith in the society she's working to defend. And when a new bomb threat sends the city into a deadly panic ("It was a panic like the darkest dream and the more people ran out onto the streets the bigger the panic got like a monster made of human beings") she is pushed to acts of unfathomable desperation — perhaps her only chance for survival.
"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." Publishers Weekly
"[An] oddly elegant debut novel....Like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Cleave's provocative debut will make readers a little uneasy — and that's okay." Kirkus Reviews
"[H]ow can one fail to be impressed and moved by passages that seem precisely to sum up the national mood following the July 7 attacks?" The Guardian
"The eloquence of Cleave's heroine is equal to the atrocity which claims her family. She is by turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing." The Sunday Telegraph
"Incendiary works not only as a furiously taut evocation of grieving, unhinged mother love but as a sly political cautionary tale. Either way, it's well worth reading." Newsday
"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." Washington Post
"In his broken heroine, whose long, angry letter is eloquent in its plain-spoken anguish, Cleave has created an unforgettable, incendiary voice for these perilous times." Hartford Courant
"Graphic depictions of violence and gore accompany humorous reflections on life and class differences — an odd combination that makes for strangely compelling reading." Library Journal
In this surreal vision made brilliantly, viscerally powerful and undeniable, a distraught woman in London, who has lost her husband and son in a suicide bombing, is pushed to acts of unfathomable desperation.
About the Author
Chris Cleave took a degree at Oxford and worked for The Daily Telegraph. He lives in Paris with his wife and son.
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