When the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow was having difficulty figuring out this new thing called television, his producer, Fred Friendly, gave him some invaluable advice: Look for the little picture. Chris Cleave, in his breathtaking debut novel Incendiary, has taken Friendly's advice and used it to devastating effect.

The story takes the form of a series of letters from a British woman to Osama bin Laden, who is presumed to have been the mastermind behind the soccer stadium bomb that killed her husband and son. Speaking in a stream-of-consciousness style, Cleave's protagonist is by turns serious, frightened, amused, betrayed, angry, hopeful and overwhelmed. 

"I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges," she says. Her life, a lower-middle-class melange of imperfection and dreams, has literally been blown apart by the terrorist act, and she tries desperately to hold the pieces together. Cleave's writing is masterful in its understatement: the horror comes not from the vision of a jet careening into a skyscraper, but from the realization that a black stain on your child's stuffed rabbit is his scorched blood. By focusing on the little picture, Incendiary imparts a message both personal and political, timely and timeless, passionate and poignant. This quick read leaves a profound mark.

 

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