Chris Cleave


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Incendiary Summary

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Incendiary is a 2005 novel by British author Chris Cleave. Written in the form of a letter from a mother to radical Islamic terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, the novel characterizes the grief and frustration felt in the wake of modern terrorist attacks. After losing her husband and four-year-old son during a bombing at a football game, she experiences complex trauma involving despair about the senseless loss of life and profound guilt for had having sex with a different man earlier the same day. The novel received particular publicity for its uncanny similarity to a real terrorist bombing that occurred in London, England on the day of its publication. Incendiary won the First Fiction Award and has been adapted into a 2008 film of the same name.

The narrator, Petal, is a working-class woman who hails from East End, a run-down area of London characterized by its concrete apartment towers and general lack of spirit. She begins her letter describing her family and the time leading up to the terrorist attack. Petal’s husband was a member of the bomb squad for the London Police; though their life was not extraordinary, they loved each other dearly. Petal enjoyed having affairs with other men, suppressing the vague guilt she felt in doing so. The terrorist attack later transforms her perspective on the life that she has suddenly lost, highlighting the fragility of life.

Petal writes her letter in the wake of an unprecedented terrorist attack on London. One day, Petal is having sex with her regular fling, a well-known journalist for the Sunday Telegraph, Jasper Black. On his TV, she sees the football game that her husband and son happen to be attending together. Suddenly, a terrorist bombing hits the stadium. Eleven suicide bombers completely incinerate the stadium. Before Petal’s eyes, her son and husband are killed. She rushes to the stadium to try to help them; though she is far too late, she runs into the wreckage in shock and is seriously wounded.

Over 1,000 innocent civilians are killed. As the death count continues to rise, the city is threatened by a cascade of further threats. London officials scramble to contain these threats, ordering a nightly curfew and instituting an unjust ban on Muslims who wish to work in public service jobs. Helicopters perpetually hover over the city; these measures effectively lead to the institution of a police state. A memorial is set up in the form of huge balloons that float up high, bearing the victims’ faces. In a supernatural twist, more balloons are added until the city floats above the earth – xenophobia and isolationism taken to the extreme.

Petal recovers for eight weeks in the hospital. She has nightmares about the attack and is completely withdrawn. She writes to bin Laden that she is unable to interact with people normally without imagining them blowing up before her eyes. “I am a mother, Osama,” she writes, “I just want you to love my son.” When Petal is discharged, she goes to Jasper for comfort. Jasper is ambivalent about keeping things going, both with Petal and his wealthy and shallow girlfriend, Petra.

Ultimately, Petal realizes that she cannot depend on men to heal her trauma. She reflects, “I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself,” and resolves to grow stronger. Though her memories of the terrorist attack are never erased, the explosions and flames that remain in her head die down over time as Petal builds a more independent and self-forgiving life.