Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A brutal but touching letter

I've been hearing a lot of good things about Incendiary, Chris Cleave's debut novel. I've been holding out since I've also found out that it's a post-9/11 novel, which is a theme I'm not too big on. When I read Joseph O'Neill's Netherland last year, I thought that it was the best novel about 9/11 even though it touched on other less familiar topics such as cricket. Incendiary, however, surprised me. It's a damn terrific read with its graphic depiction of the horrors of terrorism and the deep-seated emotions that follow.

Incendiary is actually a novel in letters, one written by an unnamed married woman to Osama bin Laden. One afternoon, while her husband and her 4-year-old boy were out watching a football game, terrorists bomb the London football field. The bombing happens when she was having an illicit affair with one Jasper Black, who takes her to the football field amidst the riot and stampede that eventually ensues. She passes out and wakes up 3 days later in a hospital where she learns that her husband and son perished during the attack, and all that was left of them were their teeth.

Our heroine goes through her life in London in a daze. She gets a clerical job in Scotland Yard where she has a brief fling with her boss, Terence Butcher. She meets Jasper Black's partner, Petra Sutherland, who eventually invites her to move in with them. One night at a pub, Terence makes a revelation about what happened during that day of the terrorist attack, something which our heroine also tells Jasper and Petra, both of whom are journalists for the Sunday Telegraph. What happens during the novel's final pages is just too good to reveal.

The character's letters to Osama consist of 4 epistolaries -- for for each season. The bombing happens in the summer, which incidentally is the lengthiest letter, almost half of the book. Her letters during the other 3 seasons show us how difficult it is to cope with the loss of her family. It's a downward spiral from there. The narrator sees her boy in almost every male child that she meets, and we see how the tragedy causes episodes of dementia during her waking hours. These scenes are very heartbreaking. You've left no choice but to empathize with her.

I love novels with narrators who have distinct voices, and the one in Incendiary features one of the most provoking and attention-grabbing voices I’ve come across. She’s not strong-willed though. On the contrary, she writes about how she just lets herself break down when she thinks about her husband and son. And this is the brilliance of the novel: it allowed me to think how victims of actual terrorist attacks are coping. Are they slowly losing it all, with their paranoia, anger, and sorrow? Or are they rebuilding their lives with what was left, which our narrator can’t seem to do?

Incendiary is a very satisfying novel. I experienced a wide range of emotions when I was reading it. I laughed during scenes that showed our narrator’s cluelessness about current fashion trends. I got angry at terrorists for their acts of violence. I became morose at the narrator’s emotional turmoil. Incendiary is a whole world different from Netherland. It’s not better, but it is definitely noteworthy for exploring the effects of terrorist activities on the everyday individual.

Read this book if:

  1. You love a narrator with a distinct voice.
  2. You’re no stranger to graphic depictions of attacks.
  3. You’re fond of epistolary novels.


Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I haven't heard about this book yet but it does sound very interesting!

Mel u said...

I have not heard of this book either but I do like novels in letter format-so far I have not been motivated to read Netherlands-good review as always

Anonymous said...

I'm not very partial to epistolary novels, except for a very few. But, I do like the subject this book tackles --- how people cope with personal tragedy.

Great review, Peter, 'cause you've piqued my interest in this book. But then, don't you always? :)

serendipity_viv said...

I do love an epistolary style novel but I wonder if the subject matter might be too heartwrenching. I try to avoid reading about 9/11 to be honest, not for any reason, it is just so sad.

Charlie said...

Excellent, thoughtful review, Peter. I love reading your analysis and recommendations. I may like this book because it is different.

LoF said...

i used to not have an opinion on the post 9/11 theme although i wouldn't read in that genre. i watched a poorly executed movie with the post 9/11 theme and it was too much for me.

Anonymous said...

I really want to read this book, partly because I keep hearing such great things and also because I loved The Other Hand/Little Bee so much!

Peter S. said...

@Mrs B: It is very interesting!

@mel u: You should also read Netherland. Very, very satisfying read.

@Josbooshelf: You flatter. Hehehe.

@Viviene: I must admit that is so sad. But sometimes, we just have to read about the truth, no matter how sad it is.

@Charlie: It is quite different.

@line of flight: You should try it.

@savidgereads: I can't wait to read Little Bee.

Evanescence said...

Is anyone else sometimes uncomfortable with real life events being adapted or loosely used in a fictional book?

I presume the book reviewed, used the July 7th bombings as a basis for their 'own' bombing of the football field.

I've read and heard of other books which have used real child murder cases as a basis for the storyline, and even directly referenced to one book. Depending on the book, I'm slightly uncomfortable with other people's pain being used in fiction, does anyone else think that?

The only book I've read that seems to do it well, or at least partially well is 1974 by David Peace.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Evanescence. I guess when you use the material tactfully, then using other people's pain (as you put it) is perfectly all right.

By the way, I really should David Peace. I've heard that he's so underrrated.

Evanescence said...

Yes, one book I read 'Watch me Disappear', by Jill Dawson, just seemed to using a real life murder as a 'tag along' to the books own storyline, and a recent one reviewed on a Book club programme, seemed to take a serial murder and place it in a new setting, which makes me think what's the point taking something that happened in one place and put in another setting?

But I think sometimes educating people about an area's history or particular period of time, is important, which is why I think 1974 and the other books in that series were better, as they also focused on, the police corruption and their inadequacies when investigating real life cases.

I know David Peace has had a lot of focus in the UK (where I'm from), as one of his books (The Damned Utd) has been made into a film and another (the Red Riding books) have been made into a TV adaptation.

Peter S. said...

I'm finally sold on David Peace, Evanescence! First thing tomorrow, I'm headed to the bookstore to get his novels!