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[258] Incendiary – Chris Cleave

“It is Christmas Eve Osama and this morning I decided you were right after all. I mean I’ve been thinking about it a lot what with not having much to do of an evening. Some people are cruel and selfish and the world would be better off without them. You were absolutely right the whole time some people only deserve to burn.” [232]

In an epistolary form, Incendiary is a black comedy about the war on terror and terrorism itself. The narrator is a woman whose husband and four year old son were blown into pieces when suicide bombers blow up the stadium during a soccer game. Kareem is made mad by a world gone mad: what fuels her madness and guilt is her cheating on her husband with Jasper Black, a journalist who writes social commentary. The aftermath of the terrorist attack sweeps her in a concatenation of events—political and sexual—that involve journalists and cops who are opportunistic and selfish.

When you touch me all I can see is that bloody explosion . . . I wish I’d never met you. I loved my husband and my boy but I waved them good-bye and I took you home and had sex with you on the bloody sofa didn’t I. And then my life blew up. [68]

Addressed to Osama bin Laden, the sardonic outcry of the widowed working-class woman does not, however, blame the terrorists. The terrorists bring out the worst and ugliest of humanity, and she has to thank Osama once for all to open her eyes to the truth of the society. The provocative voice, full of ragged and raw emotions, rebukes a selfish and self-indulgent society that is isolated (and ignorant of) from the suffering of the flesh. Cleave’s Orwellian look at the way we live is not only realistic, it also serves as a warning and satire. Like the narrator has noted, while the attack and explosion take place so quickly, the aftermath—the noise, the smell, the memories, and the hallucinations, live long after that it gets under one’s skin.

Before you bombed my boy Osama I always thought an explosion was such a quick thing but now I know better. The flash is over very fast but the fire catches old inside you and the noise never stops . . . The fire keeps on roaring with incredible noise and fury. . . I live in an inferno where you could shiver with . . . [165]

Satire is the measure of Incendiary‘s force. An assertion and a prophecy, Chris Cleave stretches his imagination to an extent that challenges morality. As much as Osama who masterminds the terrorist attack, it is the cruel and selfish people, those who are our own and not of the enemy that is most threatening and evil. A tension-filled dramatic ending and plethora of moral dilemmas sum up to a very emotional read.

237 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[170] Little Bee: A Novel – Chris Cleave

lbee“This is the moment. Even for a girl like me, then, there comes a day when she can stop surviving and start living. To survive, you have to look good or talk good. But to end your story well—here is the truth—you have to talk yourself out of it.” [220]

Little Bee is exactly what Sarah Summers is not. Little Bee flees from Nigeria where an oil war annihilates her village and takes the life of her family. Sarah is a London editor who strives to maintain a balance between the glossy magazine job and suburbia parenting amidst a marriage awash in a storm. Little Bee suffers a wounded psyche while Sarah fights with her husband over building a glasshouse in the garden. Yet as the book (note I say book, not story) unfolds, when their narratives communicate, they have more in common than just the color of skin, the flag of the country, the Queen’s English they speak, and the station in life which they find themselves would them to believe.

The subtexts eventually conveys the truth that both women are refugees who desperately seek a different kind of shelter: Little Bee a place in the world where she can undress her protective guise and live like a human being. Sarah a second chance to amend her marriage that her affair has marauded. The circuitous circumstances that lead to their fateful meeting at the African beach can’t better demonstrate that human beings, stripped of the socioeconomic nutshell, are just helpless creatures as the mercy of mother nature, deprived of any great effort upon the vast warm wind of events that are greater than them.

But the book doesn’t begin with the horrific scene, which is really the heart of the matter. Instead Chris Cleave plunges into the aftermaths that afford the complicated terrains of these women’s emotions and trickle their way back to the central event. The result is a style, almost like synecdoche, of a dramatic caliber befitting the nature of this special story. Maybe it is indeed a synecdoche, since the book is released in the British Commonwealths under the title The Other Hand. The hand and finger play a crucial role in the story. Who wouldn’t be drawn into the story of a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl whose two-year custody at the immigration detention center exemplifies political cruelty of the West? The mandates to survive—conforming to the dress code and speech—paradoxically dehumanizes her. Is it dignity for liberty? For Sarah, the dream vacation that was to save her marriage freeloads her life to a disaster. For years after the beach incident memories swirl in her mind—inchoate, senseless and miserable. Faith stymied, she escapes to something that disquiets her conscience. Little does she know that the Nigerian refugee is the keeper of a truth that will ease her scruple.

Little Bee is a novel that reminds us of humanity, humanity at its best and most invincible, in the face of horror and sorrow. The manner with which their disparate lives intersect is serendipitous, and how this story unfolds is magic. The book is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, nudging the terrains of delicate emotions. The voice of the Nigerian girl is sardonic and vulnerable, reminiscing the sarcastic tone of the narrator in The White Tiger. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Little Bee

Last call for the Books Giveaway to win the book of your choice by December 1.

The Sunday Salon.com

lbee“I was realizing, right there, that it was one thing to learn the Queen’s English from books and newspapers in my detention cell, and quite another thing to actually speak the language with the English.” [4]

The back of the ARC reads: “It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach is horrific…Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

This book rocks. Innovative, tantalizing, and addictive. No sooner had I opened to the first page was I completely taken into the world of Little Bee, the Nigerian refugee girl who spent two years in a detention center in Essex. But there is more to her story that the book will only unfold it at its own pace at the right time. She was one of the few surviving victims of a three-way oil war that annihilated her village.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) As for Little Bee (and some of us), it’s far better not to know the truth, to have that painful ruminations of what happened on the Nigerian beach deleted from her brain for good. It’s better to not be in the know unless you’re fully prepared to cope with it.It’s like a wife who finds out about her husband’s affair and she is not angry at the adultery but the cover story. More to come later, I have to sop up this book before the weekend is over.

Reading Personality & Chris Cleave

I’m fulfilling my jury duty today, which actually only involved checking in with the clerk at the assembly room and informing them of my teaching duty at Berkeley. The teaching entails that I have to be excused from jury duty in the event of a prolonged trial. I wrote part of this post while I was waiting at the juror’s room, where the city and county of San Francisco thoughtfully provides free wifi.

One of the ARCs in line is Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The book is inspired by the author’s own experience—he went to a concentration camp by mistake. As a student at Oxford University he’d take any paid work during the vacation, so one morning he climbed into a minibus with some other casual laborers, destination unknown. The minibus dropped him into a crush of agitated people, pleading with him in half the languages on earth. Despair and confusion reigned. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I also want to introduce his debut novel, Incendiary, which was published in 2006 and has been adapted into a feature film. It won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award (tell-tale sign of a must read). When a massive suicide bomb explodes at a London soccer match a woman loses both her four-year-old son and her husband. But the bombing is only the beginning. In a voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, Incendiary is a stunning debut of one ordinary life blown apart by terror.

According to Bookbrowse quiz my responses show that I am both a serial reader and an eclectic reader, which indicates that I both read widely and frequently.

“As a serial reader you’re loyal to your favorite authors, but as an eclectic reader you’re also open to new ideas and new writers, and are not wedded to a particular genre. That you manage to both keep up with your favorite authors and explore new writers indicates that you are likely to be what the research companies like to term a heavy reader.”

Curious now? Find out about your reading personality.