“Incendiary” by Chris Cleave – Obnoxious, but…

Incendiary” by Chris Cleave    (2005) – 237 pages


“Incendiary” the first novel by Chris Cleave which was written way back in 2005, is a long letter to Osama Bin Laden from a young working-class wife and mother whose husband and son have been killed in a terrorist attack at the Arsenals soccer stadium in London.  The novel had the misfortune of being published on July 7, 2005, the same day as the real London terrorist attacks on the Underground and a bus.  The book was actually banned from some bookshops which may or may not have helped its sales.

 The young woman’s husband in “Incendiary” worked for a bomb disposal unit, and the unnamed young wife worried about him constantly.   One night she goes to a bar to relieve her tension and she winds up sleeping with this young reporter guy Jasper who she meets in the bar.  She actually is fooling around with Jasper on the couch when she hears about the Arsenal stadium explosion on the television, and then she and Jasper rush to the stadium.

This is all quite obnoxious material for a novel, a terrorist explosion at a soccer stadium, a wife having sex with another guy while her husband is killed, then a long letter to Osama Bin Laden.  This plot is way over the top.  However another side of me notes that too many writers play it way too safe and are too careful not to offend.  If writers are going to be cruel, audacious and obnoxious, they better do it while they are young, because if they don’t do it then, they never will.  The first part of the novel has a lot of comic and dramatic energy, qualities of a young writer hitting his mark. 

It is the sparkling quirky personality of the young woman who is writing this letter to Bin Laden that makes “Incendiary” a fun novel.  Her voice ranges from the trivial to the humorous to the deeply moving.  I think she is intended to be the voice of the other London, not the voice of the Royal Family or the posh upper class, but the millions of others who live in London and are usually not found in novels.  The characters Jasper and his girlfriend Petra sort of represent the posh, and they are made fun of relentlessly.

“Incendiary” climaxes quite early in the novel with the stadium explosion.  Where can a writer go after that?   The novel follows our young widow as she continues her relationship with Jasper and also starts a new one with a policeman who her husband worked with.  Soon she makes friends with Petra, Jasper’s girlfriend, and a lot of time is spent in a posh clothing store making fun of modern expensive fashion.  Everything that happens after the explosion seems like a letdown in comparison.   Some of the insights about modern life in London are humorous and interesting, but somewhere toward the end of the novel the energy and dramatic tension lessen. 

Chris Cleave’s second novel which is called “The Other Hand” in England and “Little Bee” in the U.S. was a major success.  Probably if I had researched these novels more carefully beforehand, I would have read that book instead.  Anyhow his third novel, “Gold”, will be published on July 3.  If the reviews of that novel are good, I will read that novel, because Chris Cleave is an interesting venturesome writer.


6 responses to this post.

  1. I was half way through your review before I thought: “hey, I read this book when it first came out”. I’d say that reaction is a sign that the rather sensationalist approach Cleave takes make work to get a reader through the book, but it does not leave much of lasting value. From the reviews I have seen of Gold, I think I will be giving it a pass.



  2. Hi Kevin, just read a couple of the reviews of “Gold” – The Gaurdian and the Independent – and they were extremely positive. Cleave’s books always seem to have a catchy idea. In Gold, the story takes place at the 2012 Olympics which don’t get started until August. Looks like it might be difficult for anyone to NOT read this book.



  3. Posted by sharkell on June 24, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    I read The Other Hand before reading Incendiary. The Other Hand was a stand out for me, although it has a rather horrific scene in the middle of the book which I did not enjoy reading. However, Cleave’s followed that scene with some laugh out loud humour which lightened the horror. Incendiary was a poor cousin to The Other Hand but I did enjoy the story and the writing style.



    • Hi Sharkell,
      I do wish I’d read “The Other Hand” first, even though I did quite like “Incendiary”. Chris Cleave’s next book “Gold” looks like it may be near unresistable to readers, a nostalgic story about the 2012 Olympics published a month before the Olympics begin. I do like Cleave’s impudence and audaciousness.



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