Incendiary vs Incendiary (2008)


At last year’s MWF, I attended a session with Chris Cleave and Susan Johnson. It was fascinating – I am interested in the process that different creative people follow, and both of these authors had a lot to say. I rushed off and read My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson shortly after the festival, but have only just got around to reading some of Chris Cleave’s work.

Incendiary takes the form of a letter written to Osama Bin Laden by a grieving widow and mother, whose husband and son were killed in a massive terrorist attack in London. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on the way you look at it), Incendiary was released on July 7, 2005, which was the day that the London bombings occurred. It was removed from shelves and re-released some time later.

The novel starts off as a painfully raw read – the grief of the mother is so fresh and direct. As the letter continues, she reveals her guilt and her flaws. She is far from perfect and presents herself to the audience with all her imperfections. At the time of the bombing, she was having sex with Jasper, a man whose expensive townhouse she can see from her ex-council flat in an ugly tower block. The mother is never given a name, and there is something about this namelessness that seems exactly right. I was on the journey with this woman through her grief, but then the plot changed and started moving in a totally different direction.

Jasper’s girlfriend is brought into the book, and many of the interactions between her and the mother seemed not only uncomfortable but really illogical to me. I understand that the mother is grieving, but I could not see the mother relating to the other woman in this way. One aspect which I loved was the way the psychological trauma manifested itself in the mother – in particular, the way she had constant visions of gory pain around her.

I’ll certainly try the book again in the future as I loved the mother’s voice, and  perhaps another read will make the reasoning for her actions more clear, but in the meantime, I’ll hold on to the beauty and pain of the first half.


After I finished the book, I discovered that it had been made into a film. This surprised me – I could see how some parts could be taken, but not others. Plus, it doesn’t read to me as a film, but very much as a novel. If you read and loved the book, it’s good to know that the film is based on the book, but it does take a different path.  I was pleased, because many of the aspects of the book that I least liked were not in the film, and most of the stuff I loved was. The alternative path that the film took was an interesting one, and one that I feel worked much better than the story from the book could have. The film didn’t have as much of the horror and terror as the book; it would have been absolutely horrific to have the bloody mess of the explosion in as much detail on film as it was in the book, but there wasn’t enough. There was the sense of pain, but not the sense of living with absolute fear.

The film doesn’t tell the same story, and the characters are also quite different. For me, the mother character was much rougher and edgier, and whilst Michelle Williams showed her grief beautifully, the character was too gentle and, despite her actions, quite passive. Jasper was far more of a self-absorbed posh wanker in the book who could not handle the emotions he was feeling, whereas Ewan McGregor’s portrayal was far more considerate and caring. Then again, as his character in the film did not go on to have the importance in the mother’s life as he did in the book, perhaps he did not need to be as much of a wanker. There is also the policeman, Terrence Butcher. I much preferred the way he came into the mother’s life in the book, and I liked him being an older and unlikely lover. Matthew MacFadyen, who played the Terrence Butcher in the film, is just too young, handsome and charismatic for this character. And no-one in the film seemed tired, but in the book, fear and grief wore everyone down.

Despite all of this, I did like the film, but only as long as I separated it from the book in my mind.

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