London's burning 

On July 7, you have to imagine there were some rather awkward conference calls among the various players publishing British author Chris Cleave's Incendiary. The novel is written as a letter to Osama bin Laden from a distraught unnamed woman whose husband and son were killed in an al-Qaeda bombing of a London football stadium. It was released in Britain on the same day as the real-life bombings of the London mass transit system. Surely they were mourning the dead and dying, but such synchronicities -- is it blasphemy to use that word? -- sell a lot of books.

British publisher Chatto & Windus tastefully withdrew its advertising (as if they needed it with all the attention the book was getting), and American publisher Knopf released the book a few weeks ahead of schedule.

There's a secondary character in the book, Petra Sutherland, who fails a similar dilemma. On the day of the stadium bombing, the Lifestyles editor and columnist for The Sunday Telegraph is drafted to write the lead story. She's so pleased by the career opportunity that she doesn't even think to call her boyfriend, Jasper Black, who was supposed to be at the game. It never occurs to her to wonder if he's OK.

It turns out, she needn't have worried. He'd skipped the game for questionable reasons that implicate the novel's deeply and openly flawed narrator, but Sutherland doesn't know that.

The narrator staggers through emotional frigidity and ferocious anger amid a moral morass where everyone is wrong. She condemns the arrogance and violence of self-righteous Westerners and terrorists. Largely ignorant of ideology, she thinks that bin Laden would "stop the bombs in a second if I could make you see my boy with all your heart. ... I know you would stop making boy-shaped holes in the world. It would just make you too sad."

Incendiary by Chris Cleave. $22.95. Knopf. 256 pages.



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