Book review: Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

Incendiary (novel)

Incendiary (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I picked up Incendiary at Powell’s Books in Portland because I loved Chris Cleave‘s other novel, Little Bee. Our local library didn’t have a copy of Incendiary, so I was really excited to find a used copy.

In Incendiary, like Little Bee, Cleave goes into the mind of a woman. He writes in first person. Both women’s minds are a bit unusual and perhaps not quite sane, and both women experience extreme trauma, which explains much of their insanity.

Incendiary, which won many literary prizes, and which was made into a movie, is written as a lengthy letter from a young mother to Osama Bin Laden. She appears to write the letter as events unfold. Her style is that of a poorly educated woman, who develops into a fairly deep thinker as the story progresses. She starts out as a fairly happily married woman who begins an affair right before her husband and son are blown up at a soccer game. She is home, shagging her new lover while watching the game, when the explosion rocks the field. Insisting upon leaving immediately to find her son, the lover, Jasper, drives her close to the field, where she runs against the crowd into the stadium, and ends up injured, in the hospital. Her guilt and anger, along with her terrible loss, propel the rest of the story, as she alternately tries to put her life back together, and deals with Jasper and others.

One of the stranger things about this novel is that we never know this woman’s name, which makes her any woman. This made up tragedy, so nearly possible, could happen to any of us. How would we deal? Like in Little Bee, Cleave gets deep into the narrator’s head and manages to use the same tone of voice throughout. He’s an amazing writer. On the other hand, I disliked the story. I kept thinking that I would put it down, but then I would read a little more, and I eventually finished it. It’s uncomfortable. He’s exploring crowd dynamics, police betrayal, a mother’s inability to come to terms with her loss, and many other very difficult topics. I never felt connected with the protagonist, though there were fleeting moments when I could relate to her and understand her behavior. For example, I didn’t care for the way she appeared very one-dimensional at the beginning, almost the caricature of a working-class housewife, and I’m not sure anyone is ever this simplistic.

Despite all of its awards, I can’t bring myself to recommend Incendiary, unless you enjoy the exploration of hopelessness and growing madness. I freely admit to preferring more interesting and likeable protagonists.

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