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October 4, 2012

The Vicious Circle reads Incendiary by Chris Cleave

We met in the Annex on the last day of September, over scones and triangle sandwiches. Two of us had read the book previously and loved it, one of us so much that she couldn’t bear to read it again and mar the experience. We’d all enjoyed the book, except for one of us who found it ridiculous, but then noted that she’d still got through it easily. It’s that kind of book. One of us read most of it on a plane journey with a toddler. It’s a book you can read with a lot going on in the background.

It wasn’t quite what we’d expected. Primed for a “heartbreaking novel about loss and grief”, we were surprised to be immediately captured by the narrator’s voice, which isn’t the kind of voice that turns up in the Ian McEweny books set in London that we usually read. We were surprised by her biting wit, her fierce intelligence, that although the character is damaged from the outset, she is not a caricature of such things. We appreciated this presentation of a working class character, and how much of the novel is about class after all (and quite up front about this). We disagreed over the upper-class characters, who seemed so unreal that some of us had supposed they weren’t actually meant to be real, in a Fight Club set up, but it seemed that they were. “I don’t know,” said a few of us who knew what she was talking about when it comes to toffs, “they seemed pretty real to me.”

We wondered why the narrator was so detached from the world around her, even before the tragedy that claimed the lives of her husband and son. Though insights into her background provided clues to a sordid world she might be grateful to be detached from. By the end of the novel, she is clearly unhinged (though how unhinged is not altogether apparent– a fair amount of ambiguity is at work here), but we wondered how sane she was when the book started. She displays symptoms of OCD from the beginning, though we note that Chris Cleave doesn’t do this stereotypically.

We love the part where she throws up on Prince William’s shoes. How she is able to look at Prince William with a broken Britain all around him, and think, with sympathy, “You are going to be the king of… this.” She has an understanding of everybody around her, which is what allows her to step into other people’s roles, into men’s hearts and fantasies. We thought that the novel had some weak plot points, but one of us supposed that we were coming to this book with different expectations when we were meant to. That this book was written in a world in which a terrorist attack on London was thought to be a dark fantasy. And, as the story goes that is always attached to Incendiary, the 7/7 attacks were launched the very day this book was published. So now readers approach this book expecting the verisimilitude promised by happenstance, but it was never meant to be a documentary. What happens to London at the end of this novel is more dystopian than anything else, and perhaps we’re not to measure it against the world we know.

In the readers’ notes at the back of the book, Cleave refutes allegations that he wrongly predicted the outcome of terror attacks on London. The chaos and horror portrayed in the novel failed to emerge in reality, but Cleave says that the parallels are not so off. They’re just more subtle: civil liberties curtailed, entrenched racism, a war abroad whose cost is bankrupting British society. To which one of us argues that Cleave is wrong, not because the others are right, but because the “changes” he outlines in his argument have always been part  of England. That the terror attacks, if anything, had only brought to the surface what was there all along.

Incendiary was an absorbing, undemanding novel, more interesting than it was good. We note that all of Cleave’s books have been ambitious and well tuned into the zeitgeist, but as literature, they’re lacking. That those of us who loved the book and were encountering it again were probably wise to have abstained from a second read.

One thought on “The Vicious Circle reads Incendiary by Chris Cleave”

  1. Paula Eisenstein says:

    Sweet! Nicely done from the group perspective. (I’ve been following your blog reviews for the past month or so) It’s so nice to feel like I’m beginning to keep up with things. Thank you.

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