A Life Blown Apart

Chris Cleave probes raw grief in his chilling novel of a woman shattered by the loss of her family in a terrorist attack.

August 14, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

INCENDIARY

By Chris Cleave. Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pages

In every catastrophic tragedy, there are dreadful after-images -- not just for those who were somehow touched by the event, but for all who witnessed it, whether up close or on TV. So it was for Americans post-9 / 11.

As someone who had worked in New York for years with friends and colleagues within blocks of Ground Zero, I found the most unbearable such image to be the phalanx of desperate, grief-stricken people searching for the missing. Outside the morgue, each gripped photos, memorabilia or worse -- bits of DNA, a lock of hair perhaps -- for identification purposes. It could so easily have been me, my friends, a co-worker or someone who had sold me a newspaper or served me lunch in a restaurant. The pain was harrowing to witness.

British journalist Chris Cleave's intensely disturbing debut novel, Incendiary, is imbued with those awful after-images. Cleave's terrifying narrative makes one's pulse race with the fear that while this time it might not have been you, there would, inevitably, be a next time.

That shock, that unfathomable grief Americans felt after 9 / 11: Cleave delivers us to another harrowing place -- another attack, another city. He examines the experience of what it is to be one of those people in line for hours, or even days, waiting for someone to sift through enough body parts to discern a shard of bone or strip of flesh belonging to the person who was once your husband or child: your entire emotional life. He then poses the question through his narrator: How do people go on after they have lost everything, yet are still living?

The narrator, a working-class London East Ender, is trysting with her West End journalist lover -- an odd dalliance, soon to be over -- when she sees a terrorist attack at a soccer match on TV. Her policeman husband and toddler son are attending the game and become two among a thousand victims of an al-Qaida suicide bombing that rivals the scope of Thomas Harris' Black Sunday. London closes down, the populace dumbstruck with horror, the government intent on curtailing further attacks. In the midst of the full-scale tension stands the unnamed narrator, who begins her tale as a letter to Osama bin Laden, with a plea that he cease the killing. Her language is simple, stirring, the language of the totally shattered: "I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself," she tells the terrorist mastermind who orchestrated the destruction of her life.

She wants bin Laden to understand that there are real people on the other end of these attacks, she wants him to understand her palpable grief, to "see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind."

This woman is so torn with grief over the loss of her family that she is literally unmoored, as is the city around her; everyone is stunned, nothing seems permanent except the sense of foreboding. London is under siege, locked down. With suspicion the only motivator, terror seems to lurk everywhere.

Unable to find immediate justice, the narrator settles for distraction; she meets another police officer and insinuates herself into an anti-terrorism task force. This leads to her re-association with her former lover, the journalist, and his girlfriend, an upscale couple whose machinations may be more than they seem.

Soon, the narrator finds herself caught in the very net that she had wanted to set for the perpetrators of her family's murder. Inevitably, she comes to some chilling conclusions about life in the age of terror -- perhaps there are indeed people in this world who deserve, even demand, killing.

The sheer drama of actual terrorism makes the fictional aping of it quite difficult; the narrative deconstruction must necessarily be sensitive, artful and deft. Incendiary is all of these.

Since 9 / 11, few fiction writers have dealt with this fraught subject. Nicole Krauss did so in her superb short story "Future Emergencies" (Best Short Stories of 2003); Lynn Sharon Schwartz captured the post-9 / 11 need for a new emotional language in her recent novel The Writing on the Wall. Incendiary makes no attempt to tread softly nor lightly through the topic. Cleave's book is not, as are the Krauss story and Schwartz novel, more metaphoric than specific. Incendiary reads as an assertion, not a question about terrorism and its aftermath. Raw, painful, bloody, gruesome; the narrative driven by a grief so immense that it clouds reason and propels the bereaved woman at its broken heart to the precipice of a moral abyss.

The narrator of Incendiary is indeed Every(wo)man post-9 / 11. Her dreams are limned with scenes from the attack; she can't stop imagining her son or the other victims. She downs Valium and gin, sobs into her child's stuffed toy. In her harsh, hand-to-mouth East End life, she never expected to lose the only thing she had to live for: her family.

Cleave's Orwellian look at the way we live now is hyper-realistic, his narrator true to the point where one can almost hear her ragged breathing, smell the gin and tears on her breath. The only flaw for the non-British reader is that verisimilitude leads to obfuscation in the form of endless East End slang. Otherwise, this is a near-perfect debut that will give the reader nightmares that may seem far too real on waking.

Victoria A. Brownworth's latest collection of short stories is Day of the Dead and Other Stories.

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