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by Chris Cleave
Knopf, August 2005
256 pages
ISBN: 0307262820

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The epistolary format is deeply embedded in the history of the English novel, but is rarely used in modern fiction. It's a bit of a high wire act, requiring constant attention to the consistent tone of the letter writer's 'voice.' INCENDIARY, the new book by Chris Cleave, is a tour de force of the genre and the author revels in using a 237-page letter to Osama bin Laden as the vehicle for an exploration of grief, white-hot anger and social chaos.

The novel-length letter is engendered by a terrorist bomb at a football match that kills the writer's husband and young son. She was actually watching the game on TV, while having sex with a wanker toff she had met in a pub the night before. Such carnal incidents are scattered throughout the book and tend to lend an air of frantic hedonism to an already overheated narrative.

The government's reaction to the horrific bombing incident is described in detail and in light of events that occurred after the novel was writing, present a fascinating contrast to what actually happens when a major British city is attacked. The letter describes martial law, curfews and illustrated barrage balloons darkening the sky.

The novel's original publication date was July 7 2005 and the London hoardings and media were full of ads for this book about a major terrorist attack. In light of the Underground bombings that took place that day, the book's publication was delayed, but the eerie coincidence inevitably leads the reader to comment on what turned out to be a divergence without a difference. Perhaps martial law wasn't imposed, but the police were so unnerved by the event that they shot an innocent man, who was as surely as much a victim of terrorism as the passengers on the tube.

Some of the more extreme reactions push the book into the realm of speculative fiction, predicting a horrifying future. That Orwell didn't get everything quite right in 1984 didn't make it any less of a cautionary tale.

The letter contains some great wit and some very bitter and long diatribes. It also has many direct statements to Osama bin Laden, but the writer is not angry with him. She seems to save her hatred for the larger players, the nations of the world who use their citizens as uniformed warriors and civilian bombing targets.

The plot of the letter turns on a plot within the British government, which supposedly knew about the bombing in advance, but couldn't issue an alert for fear of compromising intelligence sources; a turn that leads one to wish that the whole lot of them be sent to Coventry.

Reviewed by Rudy Franchi, September 2005

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