No one could say this first novel lacks a wide potential readership. Based around a match-day attack by al-Qaeda on the Arsenal football stadium, and with its backdrop of class conflict, the story and its subject matter could hardly be closer to the national psyche.
The book takes the form of a long letter to Osama bin Laden, written by a working-class woman whose husband and four-year-old son die in the stadium blast. She says the letter is an attempt to show "what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind". To prevent it from becoming a one-sided tirade, Chris Cleave shrewdly ensures that the woman is herself "no angel". A couple of days before the attack, she has sex with a journalist, Jasper Black, whom she meets in a pub while her husband works nights and her child sleeps alone in the flat. And when the bombs go off, she and Jasper are having it off on the sofa as the match plays on TV.
Unfortunately for a novel with such a dynamic plot, Incendiary has two main faults. The first is weak characterisation. Simply put, the narrator keeps turning into Cleave. Despite being unable to use commas, she is a suspiciously knowing stylist, ironically parroting estate-agent speak and punctuating her sentences with snatches of capitalised tabloidese. Her husband is a "QUIET HERO", Jasper a "SNEERING TOFF". After work, she writes, her husband "would drink a Famous Grouse and go to bed without taking his clothes off or brushing his teeth because as well as being QUIET he sometimes COULDN’T BE ARSED and who could blame him".
This is the confident, tongue-in-cheek style of Zadie Smith, not that of an un-educated woman broken by grief. In any case, why would she perform comic routines for her child’s killer? Meanwhile, Jasper and his odious girlfriend, Petra, are upper-class caricatures of befuddlement and ruthlessness, respectively, who never acquire the pulse that characters need for them to be believable.
The other problem concerns narrative control. After the attack, which is memorably described, Cleave’s adherence to the epistolary format comes to seem forced. Terrorism fades into the background as the narrator describes a succession of drunken evenings and implausible turns of events. The book becomes a commentary on the class divide in Britain - a different kind of "them and us" from that which caused the attack, and one which is irrelevant to the letter’s purpose. As the narrator yet again contrasts her commonness with Petra’s hauteur, one imagines bin Laden scratching his head and wondering why he is being told all this.
The novel finally regroups, but it is already too late. The narrator, who is now in the middle of a breakdown, describes with desperate tenderness the love she feels for her son, and in doing so finally stirs the heart. Why, you wonder, did Cleave not pursue this line earlier, rather than allow the letter to become yet another tale of London excess? He is a talented writer, but his too-slender grip on character and structure makes Incendiary a novel whose quality falls short of its ambition.