A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism

terrorismThis entirely original and deeply troubling first novel is written in the voice of an unnamed working class Englishwoman, bright but poorly educated. For starters, she doesn’t have a clue about commas, or just about any other punctuation, for that matter. At first, what seem to be her run-on sentences are jarring, even off-putting. But the story is powerful, and the language shortly becomes easier to take. Before you know it, you’re hooked.


Incendiary by Chris Cleave

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


Incendiary is structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London. The book’s four sections cover events in the spring, when the attack occurs, and in the succeeding summer, fall, and winter of one terrible year, perhaps the worst in London’s history. But here’s how the narrator puts it all in context:

“You’ve hurt London Osama but you haven’t finished it you never will. London’s like me it’s too piss poor and ignorant to know when it’s finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.”

However, this statement comes early in the novel. D0n’t get the impression Incendiary is uplifting. It’s profoundly unsettling, both in its devastating impact on the narrator herself and on English society.

Incendiary appeared in bookstores the day of the terrorist attack on the London Underground. The book won numerous awards and was published in 20 countries.

After reading Incendiary, I was surprised to learn that Chris Cleave is a man. His protagonist is so quintessentially female that it’s difficult to understand anyone who pees standing up could have created her. It’s also notable that Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian (Manchester Guardian to us oldtimers), since journalism, and journalistic ethics, figure so crucially in this first novel.

For further reading

For reviews of other books on this topic, read 13 eye-opening books about terrorism.

This book is one of 39 great popular novels reviewed on this site.

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