It is hard to imagine an uglier coincidence: Chris Cleave's stunning debut novel, "Incendiary," the story of what happens after a bomb kills more than 1,000 people in a London soccer stadium, was published in England on July 7, the day of the London bombings. (The American edition is out Aug. 2.) No one seemed to know what to do. The publisher pulled its advertising but didn't recall the book; one bookstore chain yanked it out of window displays--but not off the shelves. Cleave, a former newspaperman, launched a Web site in which he asked people if his novel was helpful or hurtful. "A book has more to say than a bomb" was a typical sentiment. Even so, anyone who tackles Cleave's book will find his question a difficult one.
"Incendiary" is a book-length letter to Osama bin Laden--and arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written. The writer is a woman who has lost her husband and son in the explosion at the soccer stadium. By turns grief-stricken, raging and bleakly funny, the letter is her attempt to make him stop the bombing. "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." This nameless working-class woman is no angel. While her loved ones are being blown up, she's having sex with a neighbor. This will weigh her down with guilt, and fatally entwine her life with those of the man she's slept with--a shallow journalist--and his shallow girlfriend. But there is never any doubt that the letter writer loves the people she's lost. Faults and all, she is always likable and occasionally admirable. It's her very ordinariness that's compelling.
In the wake of the soccer-game bombing, she insists on going to the site to hunt for her family with a calmness that seems, in light of the circumstances, insane: "It can't be as bad as when Diana died," she rationalizes. "And we all got through that didn't we?" When the shock wears off, she binds herself up with a kind of wry disgust: "The woman in the tweed suit was a grief counselor... We met twice a week to talk through my loss... She'd never lost anything more serious than car keys." Such cluelessness is rampant. The government, spewing antiterrorist cant, sends blimps up over the Thames to deflect suicide planes, each blimp bearing the image of a bombing victim. The government dubs them the Shield of Hope.
Sooner or later, everyone in "Incendiary" betrays someone else. But no one sins on the scale of the terrorists--or lies with the Orwellian self-righteousness of the government. "Incendiary" unsettles you while you read it, and leaves you nervous and anxious. It is not a happy book. It may or may not bring comfort to the bereft. But there's nothing opportunistic or dishonest about it. This is a haunting work of art.