Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Incendiary includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Chris Cleave. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A distraught woman writes a letter to Osama bin Laden after her four-year-old son and her husband are killed in a massive suicide bomb attack at a soccer match in London. In an emotionally raw voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, she tries to convince Osama to abandon his terror campaign by revealing to him the desperate sadness and the broken heart of a working-class life blown apart. But the bombing is only the beginning. While security measures transform London into a virtual occupied territory, the unnamed narrator, too, finds herself under siege. At first she gains strength by fighting back, taking a civilian job with the police to aid the antiterrorist effort. But when she becomes involved with an upper-class couple, she is drawn into a psychological maelstrom of guilt, ambition, and cynicism that erodes her faith in the society she’s working to defend. And when a new bomb threat sends the city into a deadly panic, she is pushed to acts of unfathomable desperation—perhaps her only chance for survival.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Incendiary opens with “Dear Osama,” and is framed as a novel-length letter from a devastated mother of a terror-attack victim to Osama bin Laden. How does the epistolary structure impact your appreciation of the narrator’s plight? Is the narrator’s run-on narrative style intended to be indicative of a semi-literate upbringing, or to convey the urgency of her situation, or to suggest that she is psychologically unbalanced?
2. “And when I get nervous about all the horrible things in the world I just need something very soft and secret and warm to make me forget it for a bit.” (p. 9) How is the narrator’s sexual promiscuity connected to her anxiety? To what extent does her sexual encounter with Jasper Black on the day of the stadium attack seem reprehensible?
3. How does their shared awareness of class differences establish an immediate boundary between the narrator and Jasper Black? What is it about their social and cultural differences that makes them especially attractive to each other?
4. How does the setting of Incendiary in London resonate for you as a reader? Does London function as a character of sorts in the novel, as it undergoes changes as a result of the attacks?
5. “Well Osama I sometimes think we deserve whatever you do to us. Maybe you are right maybe we are infidels. Even when you blow us into chunks we don’t stop fighting each other.” (p. 50) How does the narrator’s disgust with some of the Arsenal and Chelsea bombing victims reveal her own awareness of her society’s failings? Why does the author choose to include details from the attack and its aftermath that are unflattering to the victims?
6. How did you interpret the narrator’s interactions with her deceased son? To what extent do you think the author intended these glimpses of the boy as evidence of the narrator’s post-traumatic mental condition? How might they also function as a kind of magical realism?
7. “I am someone who is having a surreal day,” she said. “This afternoon I had a light lunch with Salman Rushdie. We drank Côte de Léchet. We discussed V.S. Naipaul and long hair on men.” (p. 107) To what extent is Petra Sutherland a caricature of a self-involved snob? Does she transcend that characterization through her involvement with the narrator? What does her behavior in light of the narrator’s discoveries about the May Day attack suggest about her true character?
8. In the text of her letter to Osama, the narrator imagines newspaper headlines that comment directly on her experiences. How is this propensity connected with the narrator’s sense that her life offers the kind of spectacle that others only read about? How does it relate to her relationships with the journalists Jasper Black and Petra Sutherland?
9. “Yes,” she said. “We have better sex when I look like you.” (p. 163) How is Jasper Black’s love triangle with the narrator and his girlfriend, Petra Sutherland, complicated by their similar appearances? How does Petra’s pregnancy change the narrator’s relationship with her? Does Jasper Black’s staging of a dirty bomb in Parliament Square reveal his social conscience or his stupidity?
10. How does Terence Butcher’s revelation about the truth behind the May Day attack impact his relationship with the narrator? What does his decision to tell the narrator the truth suggest about his feelings for her? To what extent do you feel his behavior before and after the attack is justifiable?
11. “A thousand City suits die and it’s good-bye global economy. A thousand blokes in Gunners T-shirts die and you just sell a bit less lager.” (p. 188) How do the social concerns introduced in Incendiary hint at the tensions between working class and middle class London in the twenty-first century?
12. Why doesn’t author Chris Cleave give his narrator a name? To what extent does her anonymity impact your ability to identify with her as a reader?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Did you know that Chris Cleave’s novel, Incendiary, was made into a feature film starring Michelle Williams as the young mother and Ewan McGregor as Jasper Black? At the next meeting of your book club, after everyone has had an opportunity to read the novel, hold a movie night. You might want to jump-start discussion of the novel by comparing the book to the film. Which characters are left out of the cinematic version, and why?
2. Are you interested in reading more by Chris Cleave? In addition to his book, Little Bee, Cleave’s parenting column for The Guardian, “Down with the Kids,” is still available on the newspaper’s website. Click this link to read more:
“Down with the Kids” offers an intimate view into Cleave’s personal parenting style, and his unique perspective on raising three kids in a turbulent time in our world’s history. Your book club members may want to share their favorite anecdotes from the column.
3. All of the events in Incendiary take place in London, a city with its own remarkable history and culture. Book club members might have their own ideas of what the city looks like, based on the author’s descriptions, but how do they match up with reality? What is the Eye, the tourist attraction where Terence Butcher reveals the truth about May Day to the narrator? What does the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, where Jasper Black stages a fake attack on the city, look like? Where is Bethnal Green, home of the narrator of Incendiary, located with respect to Emirates Stadium, where the fictional attacks take place? To explore some of the fascinating details from the setting of the novel, or to view the city in greater detail, go to www.visitlondon.com
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS CLEAVE
You drafted Incendiary “during six insomniac weeks” after the birth of your first child. To what extent is this kind of creative torrent typical of your literary output? Why did this book come to you so quickly, do you think?
I work pretty fast when I’m fired up about an issue, and then I repent – or edit – at leisure. For ‘Incendiary’ I worked quickly because the world was in crisis and it precipitated a crisis in me, in my susceptible state of new parenthood. I was writing in the spring of 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda-inspired bombings in Madrid— in which over 200 people died—and during the period when details were emerging about the horror of the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. I was thus writing at a period when atrocities were being committed by people on both sides of what was then being called the “War Against Terror”. I became interested by the notion that when the civilized nations declare war on a noun, writers become combatants whether they like it or not. I believe in the effectiveness of persuasion rather than coercion, so I felt that it ought to be possible to use words, rather than heavy ordnance, to effect attitude change on both sides of a war that seemed insane to me, both in its conception and in its execution. ‘Incendiary’ was my attempt at that persuasion. My objective was to prove, giving examples and showing my working, the sanctity of human life on both sides of the conflict. Maybe it was a naive aim, and certainly my execution was imperfect. All I can say is that it seemed extremely urgent to me, so I didn’t spare myself until it was done. I probably pushed myself too hard—I had some health problems afterwards – but I’m still proud of the book and the intent behind it. I’m glad I managed to raise my hand at the time the War Against Terror was being waged and to say: “Excuse me, but this is insane.”
The publication of Incendiary in Britain on July 7, 2005, coincided with a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on mass transportation in London. How did this eerie accident of timing impact you personally and professionally?
I still think about the coincidence but I no longer comment on it, for the simple reason that 56 people died on that day and hundreds more were injured, which means that 7/7 is their day and not mine.
How did the pandemonium you envisioned in Incendiary (mass panic, public curfews, racial discrimination backlash, etc.) compare to the aftermath of the actual July 7, 2005, bombings in London?
Despite the difference of two orders of magnitude between the scale of my imagined attack and the scale of the real attacks of 7/7, people are fond of telling me that I wrongly predicted Britain’s reaction to a terrorist atrocity. The prevalent view now is that Britain’s response to 7/7 was stoical and reminiscent of the spirit of the Blitz, during which a shell-shocked London refused to buckle under the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. After 7/7, the very strong position of my nation’s leaders was that “these people will not change our way of life.” At the same time that this rhetorical line was being held, our way of life was of course changing rapidly. Civil liberties were curtailed, the British Muslim community was ostracized, and Britain redoubled its incomprehensible military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan on the false premise that our armed engagement there made London’s streets safer. The cost of that sustained and still-ongoing military engagement is a major reason why we in Britain can no longer afford a free university education for our children, for example. So I tend to give a wry smile when I’m told that 7/7 did not change Britain, and that the sentiments in my novel were false.
What were some of the challenges you encountered as a male author, narrating a novel from the perspective of a woman?
I like writing female characters—it forces me to think more deeply about my protagonist and to work harder at my research, rather than simply recycling autobiographical elements from my own life. In any case when I write a character I’m not particularly aware of writing from a “male” or a “female” point of view, whatever that might involve. Instead I ask four questions of my characters:
If I can answer those four questions honestly, I feel that I know my characters well enough to help them through their scenes. They’re also interesting questions to ask of oneself or one’s friends in real life.
- What was the best day of your life?
- What was the worst day of your life?
- What do you hope for?
- What are you afraid of?
You worked as a columnist for The Guardian in London. In your skewering of journalists Jasper Black and Petra Sutherland, were you at all concerned that you might be ‘poisoning the well,’ so to speak, by exposing your profession to ridicule?
I feel that you have to write it how you see it, and to hell with the consequences. In any case I don’t think it’s news to journalists that a great many fellow journalists are insincere and self-serving, just as there are a great many fellow journalists who work diligently to serve their readers and to print only the truth. Like politics, it’s a profession that’s split right down the middle with regard to its practitioners’ positions on truth and integrity. I liked working for The Guardian because I felt they made a particular effort to employ the good guys.
How would you characterize your everyday experience of the differences between the upper classes and working classes in London?
Well, I’m writing this sentence in a small attic room of a rural farmhouse where I’ve come to spend some time working quietly on my own, if that answers your question. I don’t really have everyday experience at the moment. I’m either on tour with work, embedded in some situation that I’m researching, or writing in seclusion. I spent many years living and working in central London, and my feelings about the class differences there found a focus in ‘Incendiary’. I don’t think I belong to a particular social class anymore, in the sense that I now feel clumsy in all of them.
How did the idea of an epistolary novel first come to you? Is it a genre you particularly admire?
The epistolary form is interesting because the first-person narrator is not directly addressing the reader. Instead, they are addressing an absent third person, while the reader is a fly-on-the-wall and can choose to sympathize with the narrator or not. There is none of the sense of obligation toward the narrator that comes when the reader is being appealed to directly. In this way the epistolary form respects the reader and allows them to come to their own conclusions. It’s the difference between having someone talk directly at you while looking into your eyes across the small table of a claustrophobic meeting room, and being an invisible ghost going for a country walk with that person while they talk to the fields and the sky. By being less direct, the form is more intimate.
Incendiary was made into a major motion picture. What was that experience like for you as its progenitor?
It was fun. I’m always happy when someone takes a piece of my writing to another level, whether that be through art, or on the stage, or in this case in a movie. I’ve always wanted to start conversations through my work, rather than to have the last word. Often people will surprise you by seeing your work more clearly than you did, or by bringing new elements to it that make it much better. I was mesmerized by Michelle Williams’ interpretation of the female narrator of ‘Incendiary’. She was unbelievably good in the movie.
While many of your readers in America are familiar with your novel, Little Bee, Incendiary was your literary debut. How would you compare the experience of writing both books?
They were very different books to write. Incendiary drew deeply on my personal experience of living and working in London and featured a narrator whose thought processes were close to mine, while Little Bee required a huge amount of research and had two narrators whose lives and voices were worlds apart from my own. I had to raise my game to write Little Bee. It took much longer, too—two years compared with six weeks. I had to learn the skill of working alone for periods of months and years. Two years is long enough for self-doubt to become your greatest enemy, and the psychological knots you get yourself into can sometimes work themselves so tight that you basically have to give up unpicking them and use scissors on them instead. When I wrote Incendiary I naively imagined that my writing would change the world, but when I had written Little Bee I realized that what had actually happened was that writing had changed me.
You recently concluded your parenting column for The Guardian. What are you doing with your time these days?
Writing a novel that I hope will justify my readers’ kindness and patience, trying to be a help to my family, and attempting to not appear weird in social situations.