Monday, 23 November 2009

Incendiary by Chris Cleave

Incendiary is based around a fictional terrorist attack in London, although the narrative is written entirely as a letter to Osama Bin laden by a mother who lost her husband and son in the bomb. Not really a promising start for a novel, but it was fantastic. I was looking forward to reading this as soon as I read The Other Hand, and I'd have to say I thought this was slightly better. It has the same ability to delve deep into characters personal emotions as well as making social comments on today's society. It takes a fictional situation but shows what could quite realistically happen.

The terrorist attack in question is a bomb in a football stadium, obviously on match day. The horror and realism that this is described is a horrific thing to read, and even more horrific because it is told in the first person, as she manages to sneak into the stadium and sees the dead and dying, and ripped and shredded flesh. From this point on, she degenerates rapidly, never getting the help she needs to deal with her grief, both from the people who are supposed to help her and from the people she attaches herself too. In fact when she is recovering from her injuries in hospital, they seem more concerned about making the place look good for a royal visit than than patient welfare.

The whole tone of the novel is set up from the first paragraph, which i think is probably the best first paragraph I've ever read. Well perhaps that's a bit sweeping, but I definitely can't think of a better one right now!

"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 and 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?"

That got me gripped, and then my second favourite paragraph comes on the second page and shows raw emotion on a personal level.

"I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape 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."

The bereaved mother is nowhere near perfect and she admits this herself. She's unfaithful, and occasionally leaves her son alone to go to the pub. But somehow she's likable, and her pain and torment is totally believable and seems to come out through her words. As her mental state degenerates throughout the book, she never loses our sympathy, although some of the people she associates with, who even claim to be trying to help her could be seen as reprehensible. The book does push the boundaries of what could happen, and in my opinion gets slightly unrealistic at the end, with the last few scenes seeming totally unreal, but I don't think that really matters. By this point, revelations about the attack have tipped her over the edge, and it is possible to believe she would think anything was a good idea!

But as well as a brilliant character study of a grief stricken mother, this book makes a not so subtle statement about what could happen when a country tries to stamp out terrorism and goes to extreme measures to achieve this. We get institutionalised racism, curfews, bridge closures, barrage balloons and other protective measures to try and make a nation feel safe. And the futility of all this is seen through the eyes of this bereaved mother, in a mental fragile state, yet we still see a more rational point of view from her. With relation to the bridge closures, she says

“I never did work out how that was meant to help. Maybe they thought it would demoralise your Clapham cell Osama if they had to go via the M25 to bomb Chelsea."

Which brings me on to the my last point about this story. It, like The Other hand, manages to bring humour into what is quite a horrific scenario. It's another one where I thought i shouldn't be laughing, but some of the comments she makes are quite humorous, as well as insightful. Brilliant book, and I would recommend it to anyone.


farmlanebooks said...

This sounds even more disturbing than The Other Hand. I am really put off by the description of it, but I know how well he handled difficult issues in The Other Hand, so will ensure I read it at some point. Great review - thank you!

Jo said...

I just re-read my review and agree I don't think I made it sound that appealing! It is definitely worth reading though.

Jo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dot said...

Great review! As you know I really enjoyed The Other Hand, definitely going to get this one.

Paperback Reader said...

I have a copy of this on its way to me so I'm pleased to read such an enthusiastic review! I think this will be a book that I'll enjoy -despite the subject matter- as I have a somewhat morbid fascination with horrific acts of terror/genocide/holocaust (that makes me sound like a freak).