I wrote a book that Newsweek called “arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written.” The novel itself is eerie enough, and the grotesque coincidence of its publication made it even stranger.
I drafted Incendiary during six insomniac weeks in the spring of 2004, when my first child was six months old and I looked with horror at the world he was growing up into. This was the time of the train bombings in Madrid, and the snickering torturers at the Abu Ghraib prison. The airwaves were filled with body counts and brutish ideologies, and I needed to write something to remind myself of the simple human cost of this folly. And I think I wanted my son, when he was older, to understand something of the febrile nature of the times he was born into.
I wrote about a terrorist bomb in London, because London is my city, and I wrote about the death of a child, because we all love our children. But when it was finished I suspected that Incendiary was too provocative, too vernacular, too sexually charged, and just too downright weird to be published.
In fact, against the odds and thanks to the courage of a number of journalists and readers who have been unswerving in their support, Incendiary has become an international bestseller. It is published in 20 countries. I get email in languages I can’t even identify. People seem to like the book, and yet it has proved strangely divisive. The Telegraph called it “triumphantly convincing” while the Observer damned it as “an insult.” The Washington Post hailed it as “a mesmerizing tour de force” but the New York Times found it “a simple case of tastelessness.” (Three days later, the New York Times called the novel “stunning in its portrayal of a city living with terror”).
For me Incendiary is none of those things. It’s a story about a woman who loses her son, with all the simple sadness you would expect.
I tried to make my heroine funny and generous, because I believe people generally are. I tried to make her clever, because I thought she needed to be in order to cut through the mire of political correctness and tell her story with insight. I got her to write her story as a plea against violence, directly to Osama bin Laden, because for a mother who had lost her son I did not see what could be more natural.
I’m told the excitement around the publication of Incendiary was unusual for a first novel. It was certainly exciting for me. For a week beginning on July 1st, 2005, advertisements were taken out in magazines, reviews appeared in newspapers around the world, and hundreds of posters went up on the London Underground featuring the smoking London skyline and the headline: “WHAT IF?” (I cringe to remember it. My god – really – what were we thinking?) Time Out proclaimed “Incendiary could well be this summer’s Piz Buin-spattered bestseller.”
At the launch party, on the evening of 6th July 2005, all my friends showed up. I got to bed at 4.00 am on the morning of the 7th. At 8.00 am I walked my son to his nursery, and at 8.50 am three suicide bombers detonated their devices in the London Underground. One hour later the fourth bomber hit the bus in Tavistock Square. More than fifty people died.
So, on my novel’s publication day something fearful happened in my city, something that suddenly made fiction unimportant. Regarding the attacks I can say nothing that the families of the victims haven’t already said – much more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could – because it is their story. Reality is a place where writers of fiction have no right to go, and the dead were real people.
What use is there in fiction in times like these? In the days after 7th July 2005, as the posters for Incendiary were hastily pulled down, the advertisements cancelled, my book tour shelved, and the novel temporarily withdrawn from sale by many UK retailers, I didn’t have an answer.
Well, now the book is back and so am I. I started writing again, after a few rather dark months when I swore off the habit. I have a new novel coming out this summer. I have found a simple and personal answer to my “what is the use?” question and it is this: I love fiction. I love writing, because it helps me think. And I love reading, because it lets me see how other people think. I believe that the good-humoured and effortful struggle to understand one another’s lives is at worst a good way to pass long journeys, and at best an antidote to violence.
Incidentally, I don’t hold out any such grand claims for Incendiary. I guess it will do very little one way or the other for world peace. As for the questions I’m always asked – do I think Osama will read it? And do I think it will change his mind? – my answers are, sadly, no and no. Instead I’m simply proud of Incendiary because I think my heroine is riotous and unforgettable, and if you read it I hope you’ll like her too.
83 thoughts on “The story behind INCENDIARY”
I don’t know if this page is still being monitored, but I’m giving it a try.
I only came across your name and work very recently (shameful really, but on the other hand, I now have a lovely stash of your books I can look forward to reading).
I loved Incendiary.
I visited London for the first time in September 2015, to see my son who had been studying at LAMDA for a year. I walked its streets for days, and with him, I discovered more of London than most tourists do.
I think that amplified the impact of your narrator’s words. It was easy to summon her in my imagination, visualize her flat, see her walking the streets shell shocked, drunk or simply lost.
She’s a beautifully realized, compelling character, and I would have followed her anywhere. I loved her edge, her hard-nosed common sense, her humour, her bluntness and most of all, how maternal she was.
It’s this part of her, of course, that does her in. Mothering Jasper, then Petra then Terrence was never going to fill the chasm inside her, was it?
I think you showed her little mercy by dumping her into the lives of a broken and predatory couple like Jasper and Petra. I hoped against hope that she would not be devoured by their dysfunction, but that wasn’t the story you wanted to tell. There was to be no one there to mother her.
And she would never overcome the deficits of being an Eastender.
I can’t imagine how you must have felt the day of the London Bombings. You had this beautiful, powerful book that you had put so much of yourself into (especially your own, parental love); it must have felt like it had been blown up too. Like it had been turned to ash.
I remember hearing Mohsin Hamid explain in an interview how he had to go back and rewrite parts of the Reluctant Fundamentalist in order to integrate the events of 9/11, and I thought how disturbing that must be.
But you had to deal with the shock of your own prescience. My god.
Thank you for this gorgeous and deeply moving book. It took me just a few days to get to the end of it, but its effect still lingers.
I write a blog for my local library (in a suburb of Montreal), and Incendiary is my most recent post.
I offer it to you as an expression of my gratitude:
I promise to read all of your work: please keep it coming.
I was enormously moved to read your comment and your thoughtful & generous blog post about Incendiary. Its subject matter made it a wrenching book to write – I was a very new parent at the time – and I thank you for your empathy in understanding that the circumstances of its publication were hard to deal with. (It really didn’t make me stronger, as such non-fatal trials are reputed to.) Through the novel I’ve subsequently met survivors of the 7/7 bombings in London, who of course carry far worse psychological scars – as well as physical ones. They have changed my life. I’m amazed at how little psychological and material support many of them have received. (Our fury at the terrorists is not always matched by our compassion for their surviving victims.)
Being a writer has proved to be a stranger experience than I’d expected. Fiction and reality interact in ways that are bizarre and powerful and often disturbing. But one of the unalloyed joys of this work is to receive a message like yours. When a book means something to such a thoughtful reader, it makes the writer uncomplicatedly happy. Thank you! All good wishes – Chris
Read this book in five hours flat.I am neither from London or seen such insane terror attack personally.but I love the mother and her way.we live I such difficult times….you captured it so well. Thanks for the booking
Hi Smita, thank you for reading the book and for your very kind words.
I did not know there was a book, I just finished seeing the movie on Netflix, I have never heard of it. This movie was so good, I will have to find a copy of the book perhaps at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
This movie fell into my hands on accident. I like Michelle Williams so that is why I watched it., I sobbed my head off, I could see and feel her pain. She should have gotten an award for her role in that movie, she was awesome.
You’re writing is awesome, I hope you received an award as well, my favorite 2 lines in the movie are: Grief is like an animal with a life of its own and we are at it’s
mercy, or that grief is like a quiet rain that never stops. These two sentences alone made me watch the movie night after night, so I can only imagine how compelling the book is. I must get it! Like someone said earlier, will there be a part 2 ??? I hope so.
March 5, 2013
Hi Heather, thank you for watching the movie. I agree with you about the performance Michelle Williams gave – it was superb, and very moving. If you read the novel, I hope you will enjoy that too. It’s quite different from the movie – a little weirder, maybe – so I’d be interested to know what you think. Thanks again for your kind words. Chris.
Greetings from Akron, Ohio Chris!
I became a fan of your work after reading Little Bee, immediately returning to the book store to purchase Incendiary. I laid in my bed with my cat and devoured the book (along with a bag of cheetos), shedding tears and reading a ‘good book’. Now, a year and a half later, I picked it up for a second read (unable to just pop on over to the bookstore and spend money on a new one, with formula and diapers and whatnot to buy), and it has both broken and warmed itself an unnerving little spot in my heart forever. I’m hugging and kissing my beautiful baby girl just a little more fervently this afternoon. Keep’em coming!
What a magnificent find!!! Bought this book a few hours ago and have not been able to put it down. Mesmerizing characters and plot. Hooked 😀
Thank you and I hate you .
I have been walking around my house with your book in my hand afraid to keep reading it and fearful that I won’t have the guts to finish it.
Thank you ……….. and I hope you understand the ‘hate’ part.(in case it wasn’t clear I do not hate you)
PS… best wishes for your charity ride. We do similar here in Canada. I personally jog and ride for various alzhimers causes . (or i think i do ?) grin
Hi Mark – thank you! Best comment I’ve had on here for a while 🙂
I have read Incendiary as part of my degree, the module is called Post 9/11 Literature and Terrorism and your book was the greatest we read. I was unable to put it down and subsequently structured my second 3,000 word essay around it, this meant re-reading and I got even more from it, as a mother, it touched me in a way that I could fully understand or at least attempt to understand the emotions she went through.
My essay was based on the idea of class and I contrasted it with another English post 9/11 novel called Saturday by Ian McEwan which worked really well. I played with the idea of Social Darwinism and the nature/nature debate.
Thank you for allowing me to have Incendiary in my life and have the chance to write academically about it. Kellie.
Hi Kellie – thank you for writing about ‘Incendiary’ – I’m glad the book meant something to you. I like Ian McEwan’s work very much and I doubt that mine compares very favorably to it, but I’m still honored that you would talk about both books in the same essay.
Hi Chris, posted on FB too as can’t get into Twitter due to technical stupidity on my part. You might remember I chose Incendiary to be my book when I was on Dubai Eye this week as the book champion. I was asked to talk about a book that had profoundly affected me and incendiary was my choice. It went well I think although I did chat on for about 45 minutes with not much structure other than my few notes. I’m hoping that the people who listened will be inspired to read about May Day and the girl and her boy. If I can get a podcast I’ll post it through to you for entertainment. Xx
Hi Sarah – thank you very much for championing ‘Incendiary’ on Dubai Eye. I appreciate that hugely. Would be interested to listen if they do podcast it.
Yes a good read for a change Chris! The other hand left you in the lurch at the end….will there be a sequal?
Will now get a copy of ” Incendiary” to read and digest!
Thanks again for a good novel.
February 21, 2012
I am an ordinary bloke (an expression that might be used in your fine country or origin) living in Chicago who likes to read.
December (past) my sister gifted me with your book: Little Bee, which really tickled my fancy. The way in which you crafted the story was most intriguing. It reminded me of a beautifully sung duet, where two dissimilar voices come together to create one melodious song; a song that one wants to continue to listen to over and over again. “The song” told by the two women in Little Bee is one I’ve shared over and over again.
At the end of the book Little Bee, I discovered an advert for Incendiary, which I just finished reading. WOW! While I am not a literary critic or I educated in all the fineries of writing, I would like to posit a few thoughts about the story.
I thought your use of the epistolary from was brilliant, a nice change of reading pace. Another stylistic change of pace you employee, that I find refreshing, is lack of use of quotation marks. I like your style of — instead of “”.
A couple personal observations about the heroine of Incendiary:
She lives with her demons. She does not hide them. It seems to me, that many of us spend a great deal of energy trying to run from or hide our demons. Hers are right out there, unabashedly for all to see as she struggles to make sense of them. What guts!
I found her to be a kind woman. The foundation of her character does not want to give back (to anyone) the hate which has been measured on her life.
A first example of this (from the story) that I will site is when she, Terrance and Jasper are in the pub, and Jasper is untowardly to her. Terrance offers her a choice that he (Terrance) can make this, “… the worst night of that man’s life.” She chooses NOT to destroy another human being—this requires strength and wholeness on the part of any person, especially one who struggles with as much as she.
The second example of her strength shines forth at the end of the story. She’s in rage but once gain she chooses not to destroy another human being or herself.
I believe that she offers us (the readers) hope. She is an example of the ability to live through tragedy, to live with one’s demons and struggles; to be able to choose life rather than destruction. This takes real strength of character. She grapples not only with her own short comings, but those of the country in which she lives complicated by those imposed on her society by a foreign country and still she chooses life. She may not always choose well yet she chooses not to destroy others.
Thank you so much for the book and its many messages. I shall look for your other two books to read.
Thomas J. Samolinski
LITTLE BEE is one of the finest novels that i have ever read. I loved the way you made the reader think about each character’s morality. I loved that I was forced to ask myself ‘what would I have done in this character’s place’? Personally, I thought that the title ON THE OTHER HAND worked better as you were always asking yourself – although this character did thid, on the other hand he/she also did that.
As for INCENDIARY, I am a widow, have had a house fire 10 weeks after moving into a brand new home (not my fault) and so I can relate to the some of the issues and reactions in the book. I love the fact that you did not give the main character a name, but am having a hard time understanding the overall structure of dividing the book into seasons. I know that there must be a connection, but I haven’t found it yet. Can you help? Please keep on writing!!!
I was looking for a book to read whilst commuting from Kent to Canary Wharf and a collegue of mine gave me “Incendairy” I was captured from the first page and could not put it down. I related to the heroine so much, as in her take on life, her humour, her courage and strength her compassion for others and how she dealt with their betrayal of her. No frills just tell it like it is.
I too see the world in a similar way and despair at how “The Big Boys” carry on. I feel powerless to stop all the evil in this world so I go about my business daily trying to make a difference for my family and friends. To have a reason for my existence and make life worthwhile. It all starts with Religion and then the world goes crazy. Live and let live is my motto and if every one thought along those lines there would be no wars. They should let people believe in which ever God they want to and stop jumping up and down saying my Gods better than yours.
You have shown me how terrorism devastates lives long after the initial blast. The shockwaves go on for ever. You have also shown me how, through the eyes of Terence Butcher and our heroines husband the responsibility of our safety can be felt and how our Security Forces view the world, their day at work can be a living hell in comparison to mine. My heart goes out to all those who have suffered and I applaude their courage for continuing to live in the face of such pain.
I think of all the lost/damaged souls out there from all walks of life and wish I could make it all better. But I cant change things on my own we all need to have an input. Maybe one day they will all come to their senses and make friends or just leave well alone – theres room for all of us here – its not difficult to get on – its simple xxxxx
Hi Debbie – thank you very much for reading ‘Incendiary’ and for giving so much thought to it. I’m like you – I despair at the way we are led. I think all we can do, as you say, is to try to act well in our own lives and hope that our higher-ups will be influenced by our collective example.
Hi Chris! I am from a small town in Alabama (I’m saying this so you may have some kind of understanding of my surroundings and as an American). I absolutely loved Indendiary and Little Bee. I am an English major with hopes of teaching modern literature one day. I plan to make your novels a huge part of my class. I call both of your novels “thinking books” because they really make the reader think and question and learn and submit themselves to the novel. Seeing the world from the point of view of a Londoner or widow or mother or refugee allows the reader to learn. I think your novels can definitely help the evils of the world (even if only by changing one readers opinion of a person/idea). I love how you have made London a character with a voice. I think you are a fabulous writer. You have truly inspired me to put my pen to paper. Thank you so much for sharing your mind with the world!
Hi Eden – I’m so glad you like my novels, & I’m honoured that you’re going to use them to teach. Honestly, there’s nothing that makes me happier as a writer than to hear that people find my stuff useful. Thanks & all good wishes – Chris
Hello Chris, I’m a 16 years old girl who lives in Italy.
I read your book in march and now I’m reading it again; I loved the story, everything was so catchy and I couldn’t stop reading at night. Every day, I was with your book in my hand, and page after page I started thinking that even the city I love the most isn’t perfect.
I wake up every morning and think ‘what is going to happen today?’
Yes, what is going to happen today? You don’t know, you just have to live every single second of your life, as a Latin author would say, ‘carpe diem’.
I’d been thinking ‘what if I go to London and something happen?’, but then I said to myself that everything can happen even if your doing nothing in a small town.
I read the book because it’s about the city I love and now, thanks to you I love it even more.
As you can see, I think a lot but it’s one of the best thing a person can do.
Hi Giulia – I’m thrilled you enjoyed ‘Incendiary’ – thank you for your message. (Did you read it in English or Italian?) It’s great that you like London – it is a wonderful city and I don’t think I could ever leave it!
I’ve just read Incendiary for my book club, I’ve yet to hear what the others will say but I thought it was extremely powerful in many ways, shocking too. The heroine was extremely likeable and I found myself rooting for her all the way. Having witnessed the riots in London and Birmingham on tv it proves how quickly law and order disappears. I think that’s what I found so disturbing about your novel and your view that the working classes are more expendable than the middle. We will certainly have plenty to talk about.
As I sit here and watch the anarchy and riots in London, I think of Chris Cleave’s book and the darkness and hopelessness it permeates and generates for its readers –
‘They’ say Osama is dead and this current aggression and hopelessness is from a young indigenous people with nothing to lose – one is fiction and one is reality – or is ti?
This book is really wonderful.But ı wonder whether London is like you wrote.Generally, London is told as a wonderful place.I understood that the English is very good in advertising. Anyway, ı really wonder if this story is real or not.the incident was happened??:)
I reed Incendiary a few weeks ago. It was chosen by a man in my book group. I read it as a book about a mother’s grief. My son was 29 years, 11 months and 21 days when he died 9 years ago. I had a lot of proplems with the majority of the book but one or two passages about grief I did recognise. I am sure the other members of my group will love it. I hated it, but maybe that is bcause I approached it from a different angle. Did you ever contact The Compassionate Friends in your research? I just wondered as they do amazing work in helping us become functioning people who still experience great joy in life.
I too just finished Inendiary on May 2, 2011 I would have finished it today, regardless of world events, as I had 30 pages to go last night. (I had not heard of Osama Bin Ladin’s death until this morning). Interesting timing! As a widow (died suddenly of heart problems)…you captured the grief and post traumatic stress a person goes through. Brilliant novel. Thank you
Hi Chris (and Nicola),
I am also in the middle of Incendiary. It’s been awhile since I have really thought about Osama Bin Laden. And yet for the past week I have read his name every night before going to bed. And then I wake up this morning, and…
I am looking forward to Chris’ thoughts.
I am hosting our recently formed book group and having loved The Other Hand, I suggested we read Incendiary. I am half way through it and really enjoying it, the death of Osama bin laden on May day has proved slightly eerie in relation to the book. I wondered if you have any questions to engage discussion at our meeting next week? I am struggling to find any through google.
Your help would be appreciated.
Warm Regards, Nicola
I just finished reading Incendiary. After the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down. Its so original, funny, sad…everything. You definately succeeded in doing what you set out to do with the characters. I can’t wait to read more of your books.
Really thought The other Hand was a wonderful book and as a second I thouht Incendiary was an inspired story.
When i was half way through Incendiary i caught the first part of the film which I subsequently saw in its entirety once I had finished the book.
What sort of participation did you have in the writing of the film?
I came away with a very funny feeling after the film. It’s a completely different stpry.Even allowing for the constraints of time and storyline(s), I was surprised and did not come away with the….right feeling.It was a bit like Titanic without the ship sinking.
I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.
Can’t wait for the next.
Hi, Chris. I’ve just read through Incendiary. I come from China. I am a fan of Arsenal. Terror attacks seem far from us. But the pain and sorrow this mother went through still touched me. You at first I though this must be an inspiring story. But at last every character invovled suffered and couldn’t pull themselves together. I am so heartbroken about this. I have been to London and loved this city immediately. I can’t imagine what the city will be like with your description. Or is that the real London after the terror attacka in 2005? Did the anthortities take meatures like curfew?
I’ve just finished reading Incendiary – read The other hand a year ago – and having now visited your website I realize you are a man. From where I come (Finland) Chris can also refer to a woman and I always took it for granted you were one. I’m stunned, how can you get into a woman’s head like you have in both of your books?
This is my very first time to leave a message for an author even though I am an avid reader and a memebr of a super book club for over 2 years. I finished The Other Hand a few hours ago having read it over 2 days. The tears flowed and wouldn’t stop. Went to lunch with my husband and over glass of wine I told him the story and the tears came again. How I loved little Bee and so wanted her to have a happy ever after, but that is not real life. I loved the book from the first sentence. Unfortunately it will not be my turn to chose a book for my book club for about 8 months (I chose the last one Sebastains Barry The Secret Scripture) I will wish away the months till I can get them to read and discuss it. In the meantime I will highly recommend it to all my friends. I was very interested to see that you had read Room (our second last book club read, a wonderful book, and The Slap. I had to give up on The Slap after about 80 pages. I very rarely let a book beat me but just couldn’t relate to any of the characters.) If you are looking for a good book try The Secret Scripture, he, like you, has such a way with words that you feel you are inside the book, literally devouring it. I so look forward to reading your other books.
Best wishes from your newest fan.
I’ve just read your book and I love it as much as the first one. Since English is not my native language I am a bit confused with forms like ‘would of, should of’. Could you explain me the purpose of using them.
Thank you for your books and I am looking forward to new one.
Hi Anna – I’m pleased you liked ‘Incendiary’ – thank you very much for reading it. The narrator has a bunch of grammatical quirks consistent with her background as a highly intelligent but patchily educated Londoner. (Our school system is not great here in some of the poor neighbourhoods). She uses “would of / should of” instead of “would have / should have”, she doesn’t parse her sentences in clauses using commas, and so on. Her character in the book is intended to be full of original insights that she struggles to express. By contrast the character of Petra, who is expensively educated and speaks with exaggerated grammatical perfection, has nothing original to say.
I have to disagree with Vivian’s statement: “What impact did Sarah have on Little Bee? After all she’d been through, to see her be sent right back to the violence she fled was heartbreaking.” In their brief encounters, Little Bee was the recipient of an extraordinary act of service from a complete stranger: to chop off her finger for a girl she had no guarantee would be spared by the hunters was, for LB, to be seen. And seen by someone like Sarah was life-changing. Then for Sarah to welcome her, share the joy and love of Charlie, to offer safe harbor…those things made a difference in the life of Little Bee.
We shall all die one day. But making the life of another better along the way is never a waste…no matter how long their life may last. As Orson Whitney wrote: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.” This story is a beautiful example of people doing just that. I loved it!
Chris Cleave! There are myriad authors in the world, but comparatively few actual writers. You are a writer.
I found Little Bee on an airplane this week…left by a previous passenger. I started reading it during a transcontinental flight, and then couldn’t go to sleep when I got home till it was finished. It’s not often that I’ll read an entire story in a day. Not only that, I then forced my darling husband to listen to my synopsis of it…followed him around reading passages that stuck with me.
I was so struck with your words that by page 8 I had broken with my personal policy of treating books with care so as to preserve their “brand newishness”…and I got out a pencil to underline things. I never EVER write in books! But this book seemingly forced me to underscore points that I didn’t want to forget, ideas or thoughts which I wanted to share with others.
I was particularly grateful for the extra information at the end of the book. I am not one who attends book groups and discusses the book, because most books I read are kind of like popcorn…you enjoy it while you’re eating it, but it’s not an experience that stays with you or stands out in your memory. Little Bee is is like an extraordinary gourmet meal at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France. You will never forget it. I’ve just requested Incendiary from my library and dare not pick it up until I have another free day…I’m fairly convinced all else will be on hold once I start it until the last page is turned.
I honor amazing writers. Thank you!
I read ‘Little Bee’ and loved it. Then I picked up ‘Incendiary’ and couldn’t put it down. Thank you. I’m super impressed at how you managed to get inside a woman’s head so convincingly in both novels– reminiscent of Roddy Doyle. I will not go see the movie based on ‘Incendiary’ . . . from the trailers and reviews, it seems they took the sensational aspects of the story and missed the essence. The use of “an adulterous woman’s life is torn apart” as a drawing point cheapens the depth of emotion and the true humanity of your heroine.
Hi Aelish – great that you mention Roddy Doyle – I’m a huge admirer of his books for adults, and recently I discovered that he has a lot of clever, funny kids’ books that my children really love. Amazing writer. I think you’re right about the movie, by the way. Thanks for liking the books.
I was so disappointed with “Little Bee’s” ending. I was hoping Sarah would be able to help her stay in England, become eduacated and live a good life. I thought the two women were suppose to have this big impact on each others life. What impact did Sarah have on Little Bee? After all she’d been through, to see her be sent right back to the violence she fled was heartbreaking. I certainly won’t seek out another of your books if I want an inspirational story.
Hi Vivian, thanks for reading the book & sorry you didn’t like the ending. I don’t really do happy endings, it’s true. Indeed I feel that our lives rarely end happily, although that doesn’t exclude the possibility of their being graceful or inspiring.
I finished ‘the other hand’ and immediately made a grab for ‘Incendiary’. How do you do that? How do you find and express the female voice so eloquently? Need a short time to come up for air – feel emotionally drained but a better person (trite?) for finally reading your novels. Tok me a while to discover you but so glad I have. Thank you
I read Little Bee when it was first published. Working in a bookstore, I was swept up in all the wonderful hype it had generated, and I’ve been a staunch evangelist for the book ever since. Now, having just finished Incendiary, I think I’ve no choice but to be a Chris Cleave pusher all around! I have so enjoyed being immersed in your stories. Your characters haunt me, and their struggles have made me into a more mindful and tolerant person. Thanks very much for your beautiful words.
I laughed, I cried, I felt crazy, I felt lust, I felt terror. I fell in love with the author and the way he writes from a woman’s perspective. Having just finished Little Bee two days ago I knew I had to read this novel. I love raw emotion and a book that makes me feel alive. This book seemed so real and compelling. Now I must read The Other Hand and will order it today. Thank you Chris for sharing your talent with the world.
Wow! What a wonderful book. Thought provoking, fascinating, horrifying, insightful, cruel and gentle too, in patches. I felt various emotions whilst reading it, including tearful, cross, upset and downright furious at the injustices we humans dish out to each other. Our book group will love discussing this one when we meet in January! Loved the way you got inside Batman’s head and his 4 year old’s reactions to what was happening around him. Brilliant! As soon as the snow melts I am off to find Incendiary to read more of your superb writing. Keep writing please!
I finished this in one sitting.
I finished it, and then had to sit and think about how I felt.
And then I cried, as many people have, but I can’t quite work out why…
Your writing is truly outstanding, but so so haunting, I have never had a book stir up every emotion possible within me, as well as making me question my own thoughts and ideas on loss, mental health and post traumatic stress. It would be fascinating to really pick your brain about how and why you write these stories.
And finally, thank you, Incendiary and The Other Hand were both incredible books and I really hope to read more of you in future
Until “Incendiary” I had never read past page 1 of a book that did not use standard format (inverted commas etc). But “Incendiary” is superb – I just finished it an hour ago. Congratulations. I’ll pass it on to others who enjoy books, while I hunt for your other novels.
I’m a very fussy reader who takes months to get through books, especially since I have 2 young children. I first grabbed The Other Hand off the shelf at the airport last October. To my surprise, I finished the book in less than a week and it was such a struggle to put it down. I have just finished Incendiary after 4 days of reading and also found the book superbly written. The stories are so unbelievably poignant and to this date, I remain moved by how Chris writes, makes his characters come alive and as result manages to generate and convey such a range of feelings. On both accounts, theses books, despite their rawness, have really spraked something inside me and I cannot wait to read Chis’s next novel. Fantastic work!
I have many of the same opinions as all off the above. I just finished reading your brilliant book. I didn’t want to finish, because I didn’t want it to end.
However, after the horror of the last 50 pages, I don’t think I could have read morel Did you mean that to be something that really happened in the story or part of her imagination/madness …. or, was it left up to the reader’s interpretation? Your stories are brilliant, and your writing is wonderful. I loved little Bee also.
I’m looking forward to your next novel.
I read Little Bee for my book club. There were so many emotions that were running rampant inside me I needed to put it aside for a couple of days. The dual narration was brilliantly composed, the characters were believable, especially Little Bee. I cannot imagine the horrors she’s been through, I thought, that could be any one of us, maybe not now, but in the future. . .And in the others, Sara, Andrew, &Lawrence, they sound so familiar! This book really made me realize and feel and smell and hear what Little Bee went through. This is what fiction should be; I had stopped reading fiction because it all was so predictable. Thank You so much for giving that genre a kick!
Thank you Barbara, I’m delighted you liked it. But I do think there’s some excellent new fiction out there at the moment. Two new releases I’ve admired recently are ROOM by Emma Donoghue and THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas. I’d highly recommend both of them. Also, the French writer Michel Houellebecq is on fire at the moment I think. His new novel is excellent and will be out in translation soon I believe.
I picked up Little Bee in an airport bookstore two months ago and could not put it down. Your ability to write the female voice is incredible. The tenderness, strength and fragility you give to your characters makes them all too human. I passed Little Bee on to a friend who agreed with my assessment. I decided a couple weeks ago to pick up Incendiary. Again, difficult to put down and so easy to hear the characters. Just now I finished watching the movie and am so disappointed in the shadow of your story that appeared on the screen. it must be as difficult to entrust your work to a different medium as it takes courage to entrust the world with our children. Thank you for your clear and vibrant voice in fiction.
Thanks Pamela. I thought they did their best on the Incendiary movie, it just didn’t quite come off. I’m just happy that people want to make movies of my work & I don’t find it that hard to let go. I’m always focused on my next novel. I have high hopes for the film of Little Bee though – fingers crossed.
Wonderful. I have already recommended Little Bee to numerous people and have ordered Incendiary after finishing the book in just 2 sittings. Very inspiring and touching…
Thanks Tyler – I appreciate you recommending the book.
Just read Little Bee . . . still astonished. And changed. The complexities of our current world are so extreme, so boundless. How can any one person make a difference? I am an artist which often seems so pointless. I used to believe that engaging in the creation of beauty (which is the only currency that I truly understand) had enough power to combat cruelty and ugliness, at least on some subtle level . . . a bit naive, to be sure, but it was the only ‘reason’ that I could attribute to my creative abilities. Little Bee caused me to look inwards and see a more practical thing that I could offer, something that could truly be life changing for someone. LANGUAGE. The ability to communicate. I am going to learn to teach English as a second language. I thank Udo from the bottom of my heart for causing me to find this new way to serve and so broaden my creative pupose/vision.
I just finished reading Little Bee. I just had to send you a simple message. Well done. My mother was a writer and after she died I had a chance to read all her rejection slips. She not only wrote but taught creative writing in an adult education setting. I know she always appreciated hearing feedback from those who read her books and so as the son of a writer I felt compelled to let you know that I thought your book was wonderful. I will look for your first book and will be glad to see you publish again soon.
Los Gatos California, usa
I love to read good books, with words and ideas that grab my heart and mind. “Little Bee” did that from beginning to end. Your use of metaphors helped make understandings crystal clear for big and little stuff. While I was completely engaged in the story I was also aware of the great writing. I am not a writer, but I enjoy reading and thinking. Reading your book helped me think about the process of writing a story. How the heck does it develop? I am fascinated.
Thank you, Chris Cleave. Have read Little Bee and just now finished Incendiary. You are a wonderful storyteller. The characters and images you portray have lodged themselves in my mind. I look forward to your next work. Again, thank you. Suz
Am I the only person who was hugely upset that every HAVE is the story had been replaced by OF!! Honestly people, it made my reading unpleasant. What happened to proof reading!! Got a good mind to demand my £7.99 from WHS
Thanks K – sorry you didn’t like the book. If you send me your details c/o my publisher, I’ll refund your money myself.
Like others, I picked The Other Hand off the library shelf by chance as it was the nearest book to hand whilst chasing by 2 year old round the shelves! It was such an incredibly powerful and disturbing read I knew I had to find Incendiary. I think this surpasses The Other Hand but only perhaps because, being British, and living near London, it is closer to home. I was so gripped by the voice of your heroine and the tale she told, I would spend much of each day following an evening’s read just bringing it all back to life in my head and trying to really feel the tragedy, horror, and sadness of the situation. The images you portray are so vivid and ‘real’ – just longing now for your next novel…..Thanks.
I am half way through Incendiary and find it fascinating so far apart from two things. I hate the way the narrator says “of” instead of “have” although I recognise the reasoning behind it. It stops me reading smoothly and jars.
The second thing is (to any football fan) a massive error. No 3 p.m. kickoff league games on a Saturday are shown live on TV. The Football Assocation will not allow it. Live games can be shown with 1.30 and/or 5.30 kickoffs but not 3 p.m. This has never been allowed because it has always been thought that attendance at games would be affected and the clubs would lose financially. As the fact that the main character’s husband and son are attending Arsenal v Chelsea at the Emirates for the last league game of the season and she is watching the game at home is pretty central to the story this grated on me. I am only half way through so maybe this fact is to be addressed before the end of the book; if so I apologise.
My friend shared “Little Bee” with me. I’ve never responded to an author before but I just had to today. I just finished it today and I can’t stop thinking about how some people are cruely vunerable. They don’t choose where they are born. Why? It’s a question I ponder on. Why was I born in the US and not in Nigeria or Angola or in Mexico or the slums of any city?
Thank you for waking us all up. I’ll be reading “Incendiary” next. I look forward to it.
Just to let you know that not all of your fans are women, Chris. Incendiary has been hiding on my bookshelf for ages and I just picked it up the other day. I finished it last night and I’m still in a stunned state. An incredibly powerful piece of writing. Congratulations.
I read Little Bee a couple weeks ago, and am about 30pgs from finishing Incendiary. I was in a bookstore tonite thinking about how could I choose a book that will in any way touch me as these two have. I both characters deeply. I laugh with them and cry with them. I want more, and am waiting for you next book. If you read this, and can recommend a book that you love, that would be great. Thank you. Bobbi
I loved “The Other Hand” and “Incendiary”, which I have just spent two days reading back to back. I always feel the urge to write a novel, and then I read work like this, and know I could never even begin to develop such an “inner voice”, that is so funny and poignant at the same time. I can’t wait for your next offering. I also agree with Catherine (above), “The Other Hand” should be required reading, particularly as a foil to inflammatory journalism. Little Bee broke my heart.
I selected this book by chance while looking for something to read during a weekend road trip. I read the summary and it immediately caught my attention because I work on immigration issues. This book made me realize why I started down this road in the first place. From the very first page, it draws you in and you cannot escape. It is incredibly well-written and thought out. Every page in the book is life at its finest and its worst. It makes us remember why we choose the lives we lead – very powerful. I will never forget it.
I just finished reading Little Bee and I think it should be required reading in schools. This book broke my heart and I will always look at my own country (Canada) and it’s attitute toward refugees very differently now.
Hi Chris, I have now read both The Other Hand and Incendiary. I read The Other Hand first and was very moved by the story – it is thought provoking and sad and I felt on finishing it that the story would stay with me. I then immediately looked to see what else you had written. Yesterday I read Incendiary and literally could not put it down – I read it in 7 hours straight! I, like some others on here have never been to leave a comment on an Author’s page before – in all my 59 years of reading. Reading Incendiary made me think about our attitudes to terrorism and how we try to combat it. It seems to me that your book works on several levels: one level the simple loss of a son and husband and the effect it has on the one left behind, but the other level is more complex – the way our society reacts to terror. I truly believe that we will never combat this terror until we start to talk to and understand those who perpetrate it and your book confirmed that feeling very strongly. It was a brilliant idea Chris, to make the whole story a letter to Osama. This book will stay with me for a long time – thank you for writing it.
by pure chance i purchased the other hand and finished it in just a few days. absolutely enjoyed it from start to finish. it did leave me feeling a sadness that such things can and are happening today is some countries. I am going to buy Incendiary, have not seen the film nor had i heard of it. I look forward to your next publication. Thank you!
This is the saddest story I have ever read, so wonderfully and cleverly written. I just finished the book and it left me with all feelings I cant describe, there is such a big lump of sadness in my heart. I thought one must be heartless if not moved by this. Thank you!
Just like the above i finished this book in 24 hrs,despite normally taking months .It just gripped me from the very first page.Living in London,and having a 5 yr old it all seemed so real,the streets and people familiar that it left me sharing in the anxiety of the novels main characters.A really convincing portrayal of a city in a state of paranoia and on the edge of hysteria.
I finished this in 5 days, and I’m the sort of reader who takes months! This is a masterful, skillfully controlled piece of work which feels so plausible, and is terrifying and touching at the same time, with brilliant satirical references to popular culture.(SPOILERS warning) The curfew and riots sound like something that would actually happen in london gone mad in the war on terrorism. The portrayal of grief and anger of the protagonist is heartbreaking in her irrationality. I was nearly in tears during her stay in hospital which I have not felt about a book for a long time. The most poignant thing for me is that she sees the boy in her kitchen, chatting away and pretends to tuck him in, when of course he isn’t there. You do grow to like her for all her faults, and I think it is good that peoples’ appearances are left largely for us to picture. If that was your first book you will be a powerhouse in years to come!
Just finished Incendiary on the train to work after just a few days of not being able to put it down. Amazing. It has made me cry more than once, and not just because I have a husband and a son. It brings a tear to my eye to think about it, even sat at my desk at work, and I actually don’t think a book has affected me as much in a long long time. I’ve also read The Other Hand, which I loved almost as much as this one, and very much look forward to any future novels.
I couldn’t stop reading and if I had not “life” to get on with (and my own 4 year old son to look after) I would have finished it within the day. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and admittedly I did both.
A very very clever book and I thank you for it.
I have a 10 month old son who has changed my view of the world . . so much so that rather than enjoying Incendiary as a statement of our times etc etc, I cried all the way through. I think your writing must have hit a nerve. I’m off to buy the book now :o)
I, too, had to read “Incendiary” after I read “Little Bee”. In both you portray women of indomitable strength and optimism even when confronted with painful “bad Luck” of birth and circumstance.
Especially after finishing “Incendiary”, just about one hour ago on a rainy gray day, I feel so angry that the world is not an even playing field for all it’s people. Some people get all the breaks and are dealt a better hand in life. And I have been one of the lucky ones…..
Are you a deeply pessimistic person, Chris?
I feel so sad. I just realized, then checked the book, we never know what “Mummy’s” name is. Oh, wow……. it took so little for “Mummy” to be joyful and full of life.
Are you a deeply pessimistic person, Chris?
Thank you for writing your sad, poignant tales.
After I read “Little Bee,” I had to read “Incendiary.” I told everyone I knew to read “Little Bee” but “Incendiary” was so intense and disturbing I didn’t know what to do but finish it. Having lived outside of Manhattan on 9/11, it was very understandable that this could happen but perhaps so painful to understand how quickly it could happen. Both books were similar in that feeling but written so differently. I can’t wait to see what you write next!!! Thank you Chris!
I read “Little bee,” then searched for every book you had written.What can I say…Incendiary was such a good read.Just superb!Thank you.
This has to be one of my all time favourite novels. I can understand the horrifying realization of how the book became prophetic for you. The heroine was completely human. I was desperate to just hold her all the way through. Superb! Congratulations!