No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

#26: Incendiary -- Chris Cleave

London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. 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 herself.

If you've heard of Incendiary it's probably for the wrong reasons. Incendiary, a novel about a terrorist attack on London, was published on 7th July 2005 -- the day that suicide bombers targetted public transport in London. I remember seeing the poster for this book on the Circle Line platform at Victoria, just before the station was evacuated.

The posters disappeared pretty quickly.

I'm glad I didn't read this when the bombings were fresh in my mind, because the scenes of violence and panic, and the shivery-vivid depiction of London under a kind of siege, would have been nightmarishly upsetting. Cleave's terrorist attack is the bombing of a football stadium, and his death toll is over a thousand: his London reacts by raising a Shield of Hope, a thousand barrage balloons each bearing the image of one of the victims. His London reacts by trying to heal over as quickly as possible, never mind the cracks underneath. I find this horribly credible.

Incendiary is phrased as a letter to Osama bin Laden from a nameless woman whose husband and child were killed in the bombing. The narrator, who could be read as the personification of London, suffers internal injuries when she forces her way into the disaster area to look for their bodies. The physical damage eventually heals, but that's only half -- not even half -- the story. She's prone to hallucination, to taking risks, to drinking too much and sleeping with (a) her neighbour, yuppie scum and Torygraph journalist Jasper (and implicitly also with Jasper's girlfriend Petra) and (b) Terence Butcher of Scotland Yard, who confides a terrible truth.

The narrator's voice is distinctive working-class East End, bit of a chav, slightly -- defensively -- stroppy, wrenchingly sad: Cleave's transcription of idiom and rhythm is pretty much flawless, and the idiosyncratic punctuation works surprisingly well. You can hear her. And because of this comfortably common-place voice, the moments of poetry and anguish hit harder. Wandering the streets, she sees her dead son in every little boy: I don't know how you did it Osama but you didn't just blow my boy to bits you put him back together a million times. There are some truly gruesome passages that remind me of eye-witness accounts of the Blitz more than anything more recent. And there are wry asides that made me laugh out loud (at least partly for light relief):
She stood there [after a Lady Di haircut] trembling and looking like the things you want to forget about the 1980s. Actually I suppose what I mean Osama is the things we want to forget like Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins not the things you want to forget like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Our narrator's a survivor, flexible and driven and capable of the most astonishing moral, physical, emotional extremes. She carries on when everything else is falling apart. You could do worse as a personification of London's Blitz spirit.

I'm fascinated to see that nearly all the Amazon reviews are one star or five stars: it's apparently a book that readers love or hate. I loved it: found it disturbingly fascinating, not a little unsettling and distinctively written.

No comments:

Post a Comment