Terrorism, the Novel

Listener – Aug 13, 2005

INCENDIARY, by Chris Cleave (Chatto & Windus)

It was horrific happenstance that Chris Cleave’s debut novel Incendiary, which imagines the grief caused by a fictional terrorist attack at a London football ground, was released in Britain on the same day that real suicide bombers struck London. Advertising for the book was pulled, and Cleave cancelled promotional engagements. A quote on his website questions whether “a book has more to say than a bomb”. Cleave wrote the first draft of Incendiary in six weeks. “I hardly slept,” he recalls in his essay “Behind the Book”, “and when I did I had nightmares which were indistinguishable from the next day’s news.”

A prophetic book? No, a flawed novel. Narrated by a working-class West End woman, Incendiary takes the form of a letter to the world’s most wanted terrorist. “Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop … There’s a reward of 25 million dollars on your head but don’t lose any sleep on my account Osama. I mean just supposing I did see you driving a Nissan Primera 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.” 

Cleave’s narrator is unnamed. Her policeman husband (a bomb disposal expert) and their four-year-old son were killed along with 1000 others when 11 suicide bombers detonated bombs at a football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Gunners’ stadium. She witnesses the blasts on television while having sex with a Sunday Telegraph journalist called Jasper Black. Unbelievably, her climax coincides with an Arsenal shot for goal and a stand bursting into flames. (Divine retribution for infidelity or heavy-handed metaphor?) 

Our heroine rushes to the stadium: “I went up steps and down steps with dead bodies and bits of bodies laying over them. The bodies were like islands in a river with the blood all piled up in sticky clots …” 

After spending some time in hospital, where she pukes over Prince William, she comes home to her flat to find Jasper and his odious middle-class girlfriend, Petra, having sex. “My lounge smelled of sex. The telly was showing Murder Detectives but neither of them was watching … Jasper was calling the woman a DIRTY WORKING CLASS SLUT … When it was finished they collapsed face down on my sofa. Jasper was panting and the woman was giggling … It was a horrible sound like a hacksaw going through pipes.” 

The trio shack up together and Petra, a fashion editor, decides to sharpen up our drab narrator. She takes her to a posh shop to buy clothes; brand names include 

PHILOSOPHY, THEORY and IMITATION OF CHRIST. Little comfort to a grieving mother who keeps seeing her dead son everywhere. Grief plays tricks, and so does fiction: Elton John writes a song to commemorate the attacks called “England’s Heart Is Bleeding”. London descends into a police state with chattering helicopters and curfews. 

Cleave throws everything at this novel, which is written with wit, anger and lucidity, despite minimal punctuation (“I’m not thick or anything just don’t ask me where the commas go”). He has a go at the English class system, the government and the media, and his heroine is a convincing enough character. But because the book is loaded with smart-arse symbolism it throws little light on terrorism. I found his essay a more enlightening read.