The characters make no sense. The responses they have, the choices they make, the situations they find themselves in – it’s all so wrong. But Cleave has created something astonishing out of chaos and if anyone else had written this book it would have sucked. The writing makes me believe and care and not only willingly suspend my disbelieve, but happily embrace my willingness to suspend it.
The first person narrative is beauteous. By the end of the second sentence I had a good assumption of who this person was. By the end of the second paragraph I knew I wasn’t putting this book down.
Our nameless narrator is writing a letter to Osama Bin Laden. Her husband and 4-year-old boy were killed in a terrorist explosion during a soccer match in London. The narrator explains to Bin Laden what her life was like before and after and why she wants him to stop killing little boys.
She is flawed and she is amazing.
Her letter meanders back and forth and Cleave comments on class and money and status through her eyes. At times it should be easy to judge her, but Cleave has created her so perfectly that I felt like I couldn’t. Or maybe I shouldn’t. She makes horrible decisions. She reacts to situations in all the wrongs ways. She does things that she shouldn’t. And I believe every moment is true.
Even the supporting characters worked for me, and they were all sorts of screwed up. I kept thinking that they shouldn’t work because no one acts that way in real life, but that’s just it. People do act like that in real life, but Cleave didn’t make caricatures of it. He made realistic characters it is brilliant.
The ending of the book is heartbreaking. There isn’t a final moment of Here’s What Will Happen because you know what logically is going to happen and yet… I had to go back and re-read the last bit a few times to try and see if there were any options left open. I’m still not entirely convinced about what happens next, even though the real world tells me that it’s exactly what would happen next.
Side note: I’m writing this the day after we killed Bin Laden, and my view on the book has changed. I’m glad I read it before it happened because all readers are now approaching this book in a very different light and the experience is going to be very, very different.
As soon as I finished Incendiary, I picked up Little Bee. Cleave again uses a first person narrative, but this time he switches back and forth between two women.
Little Bee is an illegal refugee from Nigeria who isn’t quite a political refugee because England would have to recognize that Nigeria has a problem.
Sarah is a young mother and high powered career woman. She has a young son. Her husband killed himself. Little Bee shows up five days later, but they had met two years earlier.
Their stories are slowly told and Cleave brings them together perfectly. A powerless 16 year old Nigerian and an upper-class Brit. They meet in a time and place that makes absolute sense for all the right reasons. I don’t know how or why Cleave thought of it, but it works on many different levels. It’s brilliant.
The back of the book tells you not to spoil the ending, so I’m not going to. However, I am going to tell you I was disappointed. Cleave painstakingly crafts these two characters. Every movement, every word, every decision makes sense. The turning point make sense, even if I was begging it not to happen. But then… both characters make a major decision that I didn’t understand. It seemed irresponsible of them, especially compared to everything else that had happened. I wasn’t happy with the ending, not because it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and puppies, but because it felt completely avoidable. And to unspoil what looks like a spoiler, it’s not 100% clear what does happen. Like Incendiary, it might seem that it only has one logical end, but there is some wiggle room, even if it’s only a teeny bit. Part of me is willing to think about the sunshine and rainbows and puppies and the rest is happily willing to go with a bleak reality.
I am hoping he will publish more books. I was impressed again and again with the care and attention and love he gives to his words and his characters.