When I read Chris Cleave’s 4th novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” (#5 on my Books Of The Year 2017 and one of my 100 Essential Reads) I said “I can tell that this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way” and it has taken me this long to find out whether this is true as I have just read his debut novel. Back in 2005 he was being heralded as a major new voice as this picked up a Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 30.
I’m not surprised this made an impression as it certainly feels original and I can say I’ve not really read anything like it before. The whole thing is written as a letter in a chatty, self-deprecating style from a young mum which would certainly not be out of place in a chick-lit novel. The narrator (whose name we never know) is a highly memorable vibrant character, but, here’s the twist, the letter is being written to Osama Bin Laden and the woman has lost her policeman husband and four year old son in a terrorist attack.
Immediately there is a tension between the style and the content which adds much to the power of the piece. The fictional atrocity obviously both changes the woman’s life and everyday life in London as barrage balloons take to the skies and curfews are set up. Written over a year she addresses this to Bin Laden in order to get the victim’s point across in an extraordinary fashion that manages to be chilling and at times laugh out loud funny. Within this Cleave has much to say about guilt, class, our society and treachery. Unsurprisingly, the humour is very often black and the novel does take on an increasingly nightmarish quality which inevitably bubbles over to another situation fuelled by fear and panic. At this point I did feel temporarily distanced by the action but the author did draw me back in to an extent for the concluding section.
I was impressed with this easy style to express such darkness and at times felt guilty about how much I was enjoying it. The dark subject matter does lead to a disturbed, unsettled feel. You never quite know in what direction the narrator will pull the story. “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is a much more straightforward work with an excellent creation of wartime London based on the author’s personal history and has great richness and depth in plot, style and characterisation showing how the writer matured over the years between that and this but there is no denying the power and audacity of Cleave’s debut.
Incendiary was published by Chatto and Windus in 2005. In the UK its publication date was 7th July, disturbingly and coincidentally the same day as the London bombings which killed 52 and injured over 700 which certainly would have affected responses to this book from those who came to it soon after publication. I read a 2009 Sceptre paperback edition.