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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Chris Cleave

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To purchase Incendiary

Title: Incendiary
Author: Chris Cleave
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 238 pages
Availability: Incendiary - US
Incendiary - UK
Incendiary - Canada
Incendiaire - France
Lieber Osama - Canada

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Our Assessment:

C- : ineffectual, muddled

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 16/7/2005 Jeff Glorfeld
Daily Telegraph . 27/7/2005 Alastair Sooke
The Economist A 16/7/2005 .
Entertainment Weekly C+ 9/8/2005 Jennifer Reese
The Guardian . 16/7/2005 Alfred Hickling
The Independent . 22/7/2005 Liz Jensen
The LA Times . 28/8/2005 Richard Eder
NZZ . 26/7/2006 Angela Schader
New Criterion . 9/2005 Stefan Beck
The New Republic D 19/9/2005 Lorraine Adams
New Statesman C 18/7/2005 Simon Baker
The NY Observer . 8/8/2005 David Thomson
The NY Times C- 29/7/2005 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/8/2005 Ian Sansom
Newsday A- 31/7/2005 Dan Cryer
Newsweek A+ 1/8/2005 Malcolm Jones
The Observer F 17/7/2005 Hephzibah Anderson
San Francisco Chronicle B 14/8/2005 Tamara Straus
Sunday Telegraph . 10/7/2005 Lawrence Norfolk
Sunday Times . 10/7/2005 John Dugdale
TLS . 8/7/2005 Mike Brett
The Washington Post A+ 31/7/2005 Brigitte Weeks

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus whatsoever

  From the Reviews:
  • "As a man writing in a woman's voice, Cleave isn't completely successful but he is masterful in wringing eloquence out of simple lives. It's a thought-provoking story that doesn't pretend to have answers. It works on so many visceral levels, but perhaps this is the main point" - Jeff Glorfeld, The Age

  • "Incendiary soon becomes a fire-and-brimstone satire. Cleave shows us example after example of hypocrisy and iniquity in the metropolis. You soon realise that his project is to expose and extract the city's decay. (...) All this is mediated through the narrator's voice, which Cleave has tuned to a pitch-perfect degree." - Alastair Sooke, Daily Telegraph

  • "Mr Cleave has also managed two particular, and rather old-fashioned literary achievements: a distinctive narrative voice and a captivating heroine. (...) Fiction can be a highly effective way of depicting terror. Not because terror is a better subject than others for novels (...) but because fine writing -- and Incendiary is a very fine example -- is such an eloquent human instrument." - The Economist

  • "(H)e has cooked up a cockeyed plot (.....) Like other ambitious volumes in the rising tower of post-9/11 novels, Incendiary struggles to both chronicle a personal ordeal and make a grandiose statement about the world today, and succeeds at neither." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Cleave maintains this fragile persona with engaging consistency throughout. Incendiary is written in faltering, faux-naïf prose that is sometimes richly sardonic (...) and often disarmingly poignant (.....) Most importantly, writing from a non-literary perspective enables Cleave consistently to find words in situations for which no words may commonly be found" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "(S)o timely it stings. (...) It's a wild journey, and a queasy one, and will make quite a film, with those barrage balloons flying high over the blood-filled Thames. I would choose Hieronymus Bosch to direct. But through no fault of Cleave's, Incendiary is hard to read in the wake of what actually happened, as opposed to what a novelist has imagined." - Liz Jensen, The Independent

  • "He has produced something between a warning and a satire of a selfish and self-indulgent society isolated from the suffering world outside and finally paying the price when noses pressed for so long against the window give way to bombs able to shatter it." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Das tönt moralistisch und ist es auch; aber immerhin verpackt Cleave diese Botschaft in eine mit Brio und Biss erzählte Geschichte, die spannend zu lesen ist und dabei zeigt, dass auch hinter der viel beschworenen Front zwischen westlicher und islamischer Welt noch längst nicht alle Kämpfe ausgefochten sind." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(I)f one is going to sneer at over-the-top displays of patriotism or hero-worship, one had better avoid over-the-top displays altogether. That goes double when such displays look and smell like marketing." - Stefan Beck, New Criterion

  • "Incendiary 's claim on the imagination, its literary power, if it can be said to have any, is its narrator's voice. (...) It is only the narrator's voice that pulls the reader through this improbable and tiresomely knowing novel in a hurry. (...) For all the toughness of Cleave's language, his self-congratulatory vernacular, Incendiary is sunk in bathos. The vast majority of the novel is a weird cross between Monty Python and Irvine Welsh. This is because Cleave cannot let go of what he really wants to write about, which is not terrorism but class. " - Lorraine Adams, The New Republic

  • "Unfortunately for a novel with such a dynamic plot, Incendiary has two main faults. The first is weak characterisation. (...) The other problem concerns narrative control. After the attack, which is memorably described, Cleave’s adherence to the epistolary format comes to seem forced. (...) He is a talented writer, but his too-slender grip on character and structure makes Incendiary a novel whose quality falls short of its ambition." - Simon Baker, New Statesman

  • "For 59 pages, Chris Cleave’s Incendiary is a tour de force. (...) The plotting turns crazy. The narrator’s feeling for husband and son are simply props in a series of scenes written for a bad actress. And the woman becomes an ever stranger, unreconciled source of remedial English (...) when her alleged underprivileged status is milked for pity and spurious social commentary, all done in a kind of jazzy self-loathing that is heady and very typical of London media now, but which can lead nowhere. So it’s like Conrad as a comic book." - David Thomson, The New York Observer

  • "Incendiary isn't as ludicrous a performance as Olivia Joules -- it actually aspires to satire, whereas Ms. Fielding's book just reads like some high-concept story gone horrendously awry -- but in some respects, its more serious aspirations make it the more egregious book" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Contrary to its own contrivances, Incendiary is best when Cleave forgets all about his framing device and his narrator and writes, in simple, vivid journalistic style, about the imagined aftermath of the terrorist attack (.....) At times the novel seems also to want to be taken seriously as a book about class, and about love and loss and betrayal, but the relentless thrust of the story wrenches these ambitions out of shape. (...) In the end the book blockbusts and burns out." - Ian Sansom, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What makes Incendiary such a poignant and compelling novel is its narrator (...) This Everywoman voice (...) is utterly believable and mesmerizing. (...) Incendiary works not only as a furiously taut evocation of grieving, unhinged mother love but as a sly political cautionary tale. Either way, it's well worth reading." - Dan Cryer, Newsday

  • "(A)rguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written. (...) (Y)here's nothing opportunistic or dishonest about it. This is a haunting work of art." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "Within the first three pages, however, it's clear that Cleave has no idea who this woman is. (...) (I)t reads like the worst kind of 'issues and tissues' teen fiction, both glib and sentimental." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Incendiary is far from a perfect novel. The conceit of writing to bin Laden grows thin. Petal's journey (...) reads a bit too much like a Hollywood screenplay, and the secondary characters primarily serve to move the page-turning plot. But Cleave's prose style, richly elastic and pumping, rescues the novel from being overly formulaic." - Tamara Straus, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Chris Cleave triangulates the relationship between government, terrorism and the media with a confidence verging on reckless. His fast and loose handling of the big issues of our time is eye-catching, occasionally tasteless and highly readable throughout. (...) The eloquence of Cleave's heroine is equal to the atrocity which claims her family. She is by turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing." - Lawrence Norfolk, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Chris Cleave’s debut is two different novels jammed together: a thrillerish yarn about a British 9/11, and a tale of manipulative toffs exploiting an innocent. Fusing them proves impossible, and the device of the Bin Laden letter comes across as a futile gimmick." - John Dugdale, Sunday Times

  • "If the narrator stretches our credulity, the other two main characters -- Jasper and Petra -- barely break the bounds of stereotype. (...) It may have been Cleave's intention to portray a decadent Western society as a legitimate target for satire, if not for terrorism, but the result is an emotional void at the core of the novel. Because there are no characters worth caring about, we fail to identify the world of the novel as our own." - Mike Brett, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) mesmerizing tour de force: ragged, breathless, full of raw emotion, the blackest of humor and relentless action. (...) The power of this novel lies in its extraordinary momentum, which sweeps us along a concatenation of events that follow the bombing." - Brigitte Weeks, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Incendiary is (nominally) an epistolary novel, a woman living in London who has lost her husband and young son to a "9-11"-type terrorist attack telling her story in a letter addressed to Osama bin Laden -- recounting, venting, explaining, looking for catharsis and an end to the horror. The one-sentence description sounds interesting enough -- and was presumably enough to get Cleave a book contract. Unfortunately, the resulting novel does not live up to the premise.
       Divided into four parts -- one for each of the four seasons -- the letter-writer is a housewife (of working-class background) whose policeman-husband worked in bomb disposal. One Saturday he took their young son to a Premiership match -- Arsenal v. Chelsea -- and they and about a thousand other people got themselves blown to bits in a terrorist attack that came to be known as 'May Day'.
       Not surprisingly, she is deeply affected by the deaths -- and one way she (eventually) finds to deal with it is to write to Osama. And there's modest promise in Cleave's beginning, as he has her rage and reason, writing, for example, about the bounty on Osama's head:

I don't want 25 million dollars Osama I just want you to give it a rest. AM I ALONE ? I want to be the last mother in the world who ever has to write you a letter like this. Who ever has to write to you Osama about her dead boy.
       (It doesn't seem obvious that lots of moms out there are writing letters to Osama, but hey .....)
       It turns out she only began writing to Osama in 'Winter', but she tells her story more or less chronologically, beginning in 'Spring' -- but that's among the least clumsy aspects of the presentation.
       Worse is how forced the Osama-premise is, the person she is supposedly addressing essentially forgotten over large stretches of the novel. Sure, maybe it's only a framing device so she can get all this off her chest, but it's not employed to very good effect.
       Worse still is the voice: Cleave lets her write in run-on punctuation-less sentences (meant to be suggestive of her state of mind and lack of education ?), but unfortunately Cleave can't help showing off what a fine and clever stylist he is: there are turns of phrase and expressions attributed to this woman who makes so much of her very common background that couldn't possibly come from her pen: they sound good -- Cleave has the stuff -- but they're entirely out of place, jarring reminders of the artifice of the novel.
       Worst, finally, is the story itself, and how it unfolds, the focus almost entirely personal, too many of the occurrences unlikely or bizarre, and almost all the potential of this rich material left unused, each promising twist quickly choked off, Cleave preferring to head down yet another dead end. (Among the few things that can be said for Incendiary is that it is largely unpredictable.)
       The narrator is far from a perfect wife and mother. She may be tidy, but, when she gets nervous, she also likes to seek comfort in the arms of other men (not entirely convincingly -- one would figure she'd start sleeping around a hell of a lot more after losing her husband). And when her husband was off bomb-defusing and there was nothing left to do at home she'd wander off to a pub, leaving her four year old son home alone. It's on such an outing that she meets Jasper Black, a yuppie journalist who writes for the Sunday Telegraph and lives across the street from her (she in a flat in an out-of-place council estate, he in a much nicer residence).
       Jasper falls for her, hard -- though he has a posh girlfriend, Petra, who also writes for the Telegraph -- and figures quite prominently in the unfolding catastrophes. This is part of perhaps the oddest aspect of the book, because it turns out this isn't so much a book about terrorism in the modern age or the personal toll it takes, it's a story of class conflict in contemporary Britain. Everybody seems to have a hang-up about class: the narrator endlessly reminds the reader that she's a humble working class girl from the East End, who knows her place and where she doesn't fit in. Jasper and Petra are from a different world, but fascinated by the working-class mom: Jasper isn't exactly slumming it, but he's especially taken by what he perceives to be her straightforwardness (apparently he's surrounded by lots of phonies), while Petra thinks putting her into a fancy outfit would be enough to change her life.
       (The shopping expedition Petra takes her on, to Harvey Nichols, is exaggerated, but does allow Cleave to show off some of what he's capable of, as when he has his narrator describe her befuddlement at the clothes on offer:
The labels weren't any help either. The brands were called things like PHILOSOPHY and THEORY and IMITATION OF CHRIST. They didn't sound like clothes they sounded like the things I'd failed my GCSEs because of.)
       Class is the central issue for the one other main character, Superintendent Terrence Butcher, her husband's boss, who eventually also hires her to help out in the office (in yet another entirely unbelievable twist). His marriage is falling apart, largely because of the class-difference between him and his wife. It's one of the other rare powerful scenes when Butcher describes the moment when it dawned on him that he and his wife came from such very different worlds -- but powerful doesn't mean it fits: Butcher's class-issues, like the class-issues throughout, the novel seem largely irrelevant. Sure, it allows him to connect with the narrator more readily, but the harping of these characters on the class-divide (which they seem to be doing their best to maintain at all costs) takes away from some of the more interesting things going on -- like the terror-threat.
       For a novel about terrorism there's not much excitement or suspense. 'May Day' is described well enough, and Cleave shows a nice touch in dropping in some of the changes that it causes in asides (a nurse suspended from her job, because Muslims have been suspended (for an "indefinite but temporary" time) from jobs where they might pose a security risk; the observation that: "you can't leave a ciggie butt unattended these days without someone coming and doing a controlled explosion on it"), but for the most part one doesn't get much of a feel for the changed atmosphere. The personal focus -- through the limited eyes of the narrator -- isn't the worst idea, but Cleave doesn't carry it through very well -- and he doesn't help matters by resorting to far too many scenes in which the narrator falls unconscious or asleep or gets drunk or suffers yet another psychotic break (yes, she sees her little boy all over the place, and, boy, does that get tiresome). It's hard to believe she wouldn't have gotten psychiatric help along the way; she certainly needs it. But even leaving aside the psychological issues, she and her buddies (Jasper, Petra, Butcher) all drink way too much (and, in some cases, consume too many drugs): it may be true to life but is also boring as hell.
       Part of the problem seems to be that Cleave can't decide whether she should be mourning (and dealing, as best she can, with her loss) or denying it (as suggested by her constantly thinking she's found her darling little boy again). He appears to want it both ways: that's certainly a way to go, but he doesn't do it very well.
       There are, eventually, two semi-decent plot-twists -- though perhaps they just seem that way because something finally happens in this surprisingly dull narrative. The problem with both, however, is that Cleave can't do much that is very compelling with them. The first one is a good idea -- new information about 'May Day' comes to light -- but what he does with it (the plan is for Jasper and Petra to get it published in their newspaper) is just ridiculous. As newspaperman Cleave knows, there's no way this information could get published in a UK paper (at least not the way they plan to do it) -- but, in the Internet-age (and with streaming video) there's almost no reason they would even bother mentioning it to the newspaper first. Certainly, this bombshell could not be as easily suppressed as he does in the novel (and the betrayal that goes along with it is also pretty pathetic).
       The concluding twist also blows up in Cleave's face (or rather: he blows it up in the reader's face): it is again a decent idea, but the panic he sets off with it hardly seems worth the trouble, his narrator (who can't swim: "I never learned. I mean there wasn't much call for it in the East End" ...) bobbing down the Thames just too ridiculous a sight.
       Incendiary is barely lukewarm. It's not very effective as a story of loss: yes, mom yammers a lot about what she's lost, and it is a terrible thing that has happened to her, but those ingredients do not suffice to make for an effective meditation or portrayal of grief and tragedy (and Cleave piles on so much else -- especially the class-issues -- that he just makes a mess of it). It's also not very effective as a story of what living in a world facing terror means -- but then it doesn't really try to be that. The Osama-premise is, ultimately, just confusing -- not so much regarding the question of whether she actually means to post it to Osama (though one wonders), but her purpose and her motivation: by the end Osama seems among the least of her problems, and only indirectly to blame for the ugly world she inhabits.
       The most confusing aspect of the book remains Cleave's incessant harping on class-conflict -- a surprisingly old-fashioned focus (at least in its artless presentation here). Just a guess, but Oxford-educated Telegraph journalist (who lives in Paris !) Cleave does not appear to come from the same milieu as his narrator (the alternative: he is, and is carrying the biggest of chips on his shoulders). The class-issues (both upper and lower) he presents seem TV soap-opera-like, and his choice of presenting them through the eyes of this particular type (a woman, from the East End) makes for an even more distorted picture (because his narrator doesn't sound very much like the person she is meant to be (or the type she is meant to represent ?)).
       Cleave's writing itself isn't half-bad, but plot (beyond the big ideas) and character (and with them, voice) escape him here, making for a disappointing read.

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Incendiary: Reviews: Chris Cleave: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Chris Cleave was born in 1973.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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