Cleave, Chris 1973–
Cleave, Chris 1973–
PERSONAL: Born May 14, 1973, in London, England; married; children: Louis. Education: Balliol College, Oxford, B.A.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—Jennifer Joel, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Journalist and author. Telegraph, London, England, sub-editor; lastminute.com, journalist.
Incendiary (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of articles to London Telegraph and other newspapers and magazines.
ADAPTATIONS: Incendiary was optioned for film by Archer Street/Film Four.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel set in London.
SIDELIGHTS: Chris Cleave's first novel had one of the more ironic debuts in the history of publishing. Incendiary, a tale of a terrorist bombing in London that claimed a thousand lives, was released on July 7, 2005, the very day a series of terrorist bombings in the London Underground took the lives of over fifty people. In Cleave's tale, suicide bombers strike a soccer match between popular London teams Arsenal and Chelsea. The nameless narrator of this novel is watching the events on television, in the process of making love to a journalist neighbor while her policeman husband and son are at the soccer match and lose their lives. The tragedy inspires the widow to write a long letter to Osama bin Laden detailing the mundane and sorrowful events of her life in the aftermath of the killings. She relates her tale in a mixture of London slang, for she is largely uneducated and living on a housing estate. Sent into an emotional tailspin, she attempts suicide, then recovers to volunteer with police efforts to stop further bombings. Meanwhile, London descends into a police state with Muslims persecuted. The narrator begins an affair with her husband's former boss on the anti-terrorist squad, but as she begins to learn inside information from this new lover, she is manipulated by others to reveal what appears to be a government cover-up regarding the stadium bombing. Then a second bomb attack strikes the city.
Cleave's novel, inspired by the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004 and by events in the United States in 2001, met with a wide range of critical assessment. Jennifer Reese, writing in Entertainment Weekly, felt that the novel, with its blending of heartfelt prose, dark humor, and thriller components "timely but chaotic." Simon Baker, writing in the New Statesman, had similar concerns, dubbing the characterization "weak" and further noting that the author's "adherence to the epistolary format comes to seem forced." Baker concluded that Cleave's "too-slender grip on character and structure makes Incendiary a novel whose quality falls short of its ambition." Questions of taste arose from New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who found Incendiary an "egregious book." Kakutani did, however, praise Cleave's "keen enough eye for social detail," further commenting that he "endows his heroine with his powers of observation." For John Dugdale, reviewing the novel for the London Times, Cleave's work is actually "two different novels jammed together," and "fusing them proves impossible."
Other reviewers had a more positive assessment of Incendiary. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tamara Straus initially felt that the book "reads a bit too much like a Hollywood screenplay," but went on to note that "Cleave has achieved something rare: a black comedy about the war on terrorism and terrorism itself." Similarly Brigitte Weeks, writing in the Washington Post Book World, found that the "power of this novel lies in its extraordinary momentum." Richard Eder, reviewing the same work in the Los Angeles Times, thought Cleave's widow—"a younger version of Mother Courage"—is "the saving narrator of this book." These sentiments were echoed by an Economist reviewer, who observed that Cleave has created "a distinctive narrative voice and a captivating heroine." Eder went on to note that the novel is "told in graphic detail somewhere between surreal nightmare and savage social irony." Further praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who termed the book "provocative," and "an oddly elegant debut." Likewise, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Incendiary an "impressive, multilayered debut." Higher praise was added by Newsweek contributor Malcolm Jones, who deemed it a "stunning debut" and possibly the "strangest epistolary novel every written." Jones also termed the novel a "haunting work of art."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bookseller, December 10, 2004, "Incendiary Debut," p. 6; April 1, 2005, Benedicte Page, "Writing a Letter to bin Laden," p. 24; June 17, 2005, review of Incendiary, p. 13.
Economist (U.S.), July 16, 2004, "Dear Osama," review of Incendiary, p. 79.
Entertainment Weekly, August 5, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of Incendiary, p. 69.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2005, review of Incendiary, p. 652.
Library Journal, July 1, 2005, Sarah Conrad Weisman, review of Incendiary, p. 65.
Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2005, Richard Eder, "London Is Warned, Too Late," review of Incendiary.
M2 Best Books, July 11, 2005, "Novel about London Terrorist Attack Released on Day of Bombings."
New Statesman, July 18, 2005, Simon Baker, "Them and Us," review of Incendiary, p. 56.
Newsweek, August 1, 2005, Malcolm Jones, "Dear Osama Bin Laden," review of Incendiary, p. 54.
New York Times, July 29, 2005, Michiko Kakutani, "Bombing Victim's Wife Writes to bin Laden, with Proposition," review of Incendiary.
People, August 22, 2005, Lisa Ingrassia, review of Incendiary, p. 52.
Publishers Weekly, July 11, 2005, review of Incendiary, p. 61.
Times (London, England), July 10, 2005, John Dugdale, "Thrillers: From Arsenal to the Holy Land," review of Incendiary.
Washington Post Book World, July 31, 2005, Brigitte Weeks, "Letter to Osama," review of Incendiary, p. 3.
Age Online, http://www.theage.com.au/ (July 16, 2005), Jeff Glorfield, review of Incendiary.
Bookbrowse.com, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (October 3, 2005), "Chris Cleave."
Chris Cleave Home Page, http://www.chriscleave.com (October 3, 2005).
Guardian Online, http://books.guardian.com.uk/ (July 16, 2005), Alfred Hickling, "Reality Bites," review of Incendiary.