Letter to Osama
By Chris Cleave
Knopf. 237 pp. $22.95
Chris Cleave's first novel, Incendiary , the powerful story of a suicide bomb attack at a London soccer stadium, hit British bookstores the same day terrorist bombs splintered the city's morning rush hour, killing more than 50 people. Waterstone's, a major English bookstore chain, pulled its advertisements for the novel and apologized for those that had already run. That decision was supported by the shocked author, but he defended his novel: "It's a cry for [the] end of violence," he told the BBC, the timing "a really morbid coincidence." Publication in the United States this week will go ahead as planned.
Even without this grisly meeting of fact and fiction, a novel narrated by a working-class English woman whose husband and son have been blown to pieces by an al Qaeda suicide bombing isn't bedtime reading. Add that this whole novel is a letter beginning "Dear Osama," and the potential audience could decide they want no part of it. But that would mean missing a mesmerizing tour de force: ragged, breathless, full of raw emotion, the blackest of humor and relentless action. The mother and her dead husband and child remain nameless. The reader is left to wonder if the woman is surviving as best she can or has retreated into insanity.
The attack takes place in the first few pages of the novel at a soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea, famous teams in England, supported by fanatical fans. Eleven suicide bombers infiltrate the game. "Your men pulled the triggers on their bombs," the narrator writes to Osama. "6 of them were wearing fragmentation bombs and the other 5 were wearing incendiaries." London is in chaos. The dreadful irony for the letter-writer is that her husband was a member of the bomb-disposal squad, who routinely risked his life. Just the day before, he had decided to quit and opt for a quieter, safer career.
There is nothing elegant or abstract about this mother and her letter to bin Laden. She is trying in her blunt, stunned fashion to understand something about the alleged leader of the attack and to make him aware of the complete devastation of her modest life. That afternoon she was serenely watching the match on the "telly" when her world fell apart. "All those fans had been standing up to scream for the goal," she writes. "Well. They were just gone. I couldn't work it out." The only trace of her son remaining is his stuffed toy, found at the site of the explosion. "Mr. Rabbit survived," she tells Osama. "I still have him. His green ears are black with blood and one of his paws is missing."
She finds consolation in sex, while at the same time despising herself for getting involved with Jasper Black, a snooty, upper-crust neighbor who writes for the Sunday Telegraph and lives on the gentrified fringes of the project. "Sex is not a beautiful and perfect thing for me Osama," she explains. "It is a condition caused by nerves." Her narrative is peppered with British slang at its most colorful. Our heroine's life is full of Tizer, trainers, archers and conkers (soda, sneakers, radio soap-operas and horse chestnuts) as well as ubiquitous fish fingers. We're dragged inside a British housing project, where the contrast between down-to-earth language and unbearable emotion escalates through mundane, sometimes surprisingly funny details.
The power of this novel lies in its extraordinary momentum, which sweeps us along a concatenation of events that follow the bombing. The letter writer is badly injured trying to find her husband and son amid the wounded and the wreckage. She wakes up in the hospital. Scenes slide one into another, often unexpected, always stated without inflection.
The alleged mastermind of all this pain is never far from the writer's mind. She draws bin Laden into her daily battle with despair. She goes shopping for new clothes but wonders, "Did you shop at Harvey Nicks? Did they politely ask you to leave your Kalashnikov at the cloakroom?" She can't sleep, and Osama comes between her and oblivion. She speculates, "Where you are you probably have sheep or goats or little dead hostages to count I bet you sleep like a baby." As furious as she is at Osama, at times the writer feels alienated by and angry at her own surroundings. She comes in a strange way closer to her nemesis: "I looked at Jasper sticking powder up his nose while the cars burned in the street outside and I think that might have been the very first time Osama that I began to see your point."
How are we left at the end of this gruesome and grueling saga? Strangely light-headed, as if we have lived through happenings in another world, a world brought brutally to life by current events. This is Chris Cleave's first novel. My imagination can't stretch to where he could go from here. ·
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.