INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave (Bond Street/Doubleday), 237 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
There are great books, wonderful books, big books. Then there are those we call important, novels that capture the zeitgeist so precisely that they seem both prescient and yet absolutely in the moment. Take John Irving's The World According To Garp in the 70s, for example, or Douglas Coupland's Generation X in the 90s.
Now read Incendiary. And I mean it. Read it. It is outrageous, infuriating, heartbreaking, terrifying and very, very important.
It takes the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden from Petal, a young working-class mother living in London, England. Her husband and son are killed in a terrorist explosion at Ashburton Grove, the new home stadium for the Arsenal football club.
First novelist (hard to believe) Chris Cleave takes this premise to chart the process of a woman going insane in a city going mad right along with her.
In some sections, especially those describing scenes of panic, the writing is urgent and vivid in the way that makes you hear a kind of roaring in your ears. Other episodes that deal with class and racial conflict are nuanced and poignant.
There are subplots. In the wake of the attack, Petal gets involved in a strange triangle with her neighbours - one of whom she was shagging just as the bombs went off - who both work for a major London newspaper. This allows Cleave to rip into the way journalists just can't resist the urge toward the most appalling exploitation. She also takes a job with her husband's former boss in the Home Security office, which makes her privy to information she really doesn't need.
But it's Petal, Cleave's main character, who stands out. She's guilt-ridden, sexually charged, fiercely intelligent and mad as fucking hell.
Forget the fact that Incendiary has bestowed a prophetic aura on Cleave - it left the factory bound and ready for bookstores the day the London Tube was hit by explosives.
This book would be mind-blowing regardless.