Is this really the moment to bring out a book which begins "Dear Osama ..."? Or indeed any book which features a major terrorist blast in London? At least one major bookselling chain thinks not, as Waterstone's announced that it was pulling all national advertising for Chris Cleave's debut, which hypothesises the effect of an al-Qaida attack at Arsenal's new stadium. To add to the air of macabre coincidence, the book was scheduled for release on July 7.
Perhaps we had better ignore the hyperbolic reminders that the rights to the book have been sold in 15 countries and that it is to be made into a major film for which Cleave already appears to have done his own casting (one of the chief characters is a floppily indecisive toff described as being "like Hugh Grant in. Well all his films"). Yet beneath the blatant attention-grabbing, the book has moments in which one's attention is quite deservedly grabbed.
| Incendiary Chris Cleave
Cleave's text is presented as a private letter to Osama bin Laden, written by a young, working-class woman whose husband and four-year-old son perished in the stadium massacre. The format immediately causes one to fear a fatuous skit along the lines of Helen Fielding's Olivia Joules, and there are passages of attempted levity which Cleave and his publishers must surely now have cause to regret. Cleave also takes an enormous gamble in adopting the voice of an unnamed, female narrator who states that she intends to do her best, "but you'll have to bear with me because I'm not a big writer".
Cleave maintains this fragile persona with engaging consistency throughout. Incendiary is written in faltering, faux-naïf prose that is sometimes richly sardonic ("The middle classes put up web sites about us. If you're interested Osama just look up chav pikey ned or townie in Google") and often disarmingly poignant: "I'm going to write to you about the emptiness that was left behind when you took my boy away. I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind."
Most importantly, writing from a non-literary perspective enables Cleave consistently to find words in situations for which no words may commonly be found. The technique is employed to fine effect in an especially revealing scene in which Prince William visits survivors of the blast in hospital: "He had this strange expression on. It was far away and sad. You could see him thinking to himself well I suppose I am prince of all this then. I am the prince of this poor blown-up kingdom and one day all these blown-up people will be my subjects and I'll be able to do nothing for them. I'll live in palaces pinning medals on to lawyers and architects while these people watch their tired faces get older each morning in dirty bathroom mirrors. It was that sort of an expression."
Cleave also demonstrates a facility for engineering a racy plot, though it's clear from the outset that a narrative with such an explosive beginning is going to struggle to come up with an equally explosive conclusion. Maybe it's already with one eye on Hollywood that he sketches in a tug of affection between the attractively bereaved East End rough diamond and two rival suitors: a tough-but-tender senior cop and the vacillating Hugh Grant lookalike previously mentioned; though the truth is that the least remarkable passages of the book are those in which it labours to fulfil its obligations as a romantic thriller.
Yet Cleave's evocation of the aftermath of the bombing strikes the reader as undeniably authentic - viciously indiscriminate reprisals against Muslims, airports closing while DIY stores stay open ("people are grouting against terror"), Elton John occupying the number one slot with a song called "England's Heart is Bleeding". It's in details such as these that Cleave seems to get the ratio between prophecy and satire satisfyingly correct.
And how can one fail to be impressed and moved by passages that seem precisely to sum up the national mood following the July 7 attacks? One stand-out paragraph almost completely presages the comment and analysis that accompanied the actual event and is worth quoting at length: "London is a city built on the wreckage of itself Osama. It's had more comebacks than the Evil Dead. It's been flattened by storms and flooded out and rotted with plague. Londoners just took a deep breath and put the kettle on. Then the whole thing burned down. Every last stick of it. I remember my mum took me to see the Monument to the Great Fire. London burned WITH INCREDIBLE NOISE AND FURY is what the Monument has written on it. People thought it was the end of the world. But the Londoners got up the next day and the world hadn't ended so they rebuilt the city stronger and taller. Even Hitler couldn't finish us though he set the whole of the East End on fire ... You've hurt London Osama but you haven't finished it you never will."
Well, Amen to that. It remains to be seen whether events will effectively scupper Cleave's debut or exponentially boost its profile. Either way it seems likely that the book will get noticed for all the wrong reasons; it would be good to consider that it signals the arrival of a writer who may be worthy of attention for all the right reasons as well.
This review was published in the Guardian
(R) thedailystar.net 2005