Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

Stronger than fiction

In Incendiary, the Arsenal football stadium is the bombers' target, making the May Day attack that Cleave imagines an even more brutal and bloody one. In his scenario, a thousand soccer fans are burned to death in a Dantesque orgy of horror. It's a huge canvas, but Cleave's story eschews global politics in favour of the down-and-dirty story of Cleave's unnamed, relentlessly Cockney female narrator, whose heady mix of gallows humour, tabloid-inspired categorisations and sexual recklessness make for disturbing, macabre and often wildly tasteless reading.

On the day of the Big Match, she is enjoying a spot of adultery on the sofa with a Sunday Telegraph journalist in front of the TV when - mid-orgasm - she sees the stadium explode, with her husband and young son in it. Distraught, she persuades her bonking partner to drive her to the scene, where she suffers injuries.

Recovering in hospital, she learns that her "chaps" have been burned past recognition: only her son's cuddly toy, that staple ingredient of bomb sites, is resurrected. Mad with grief, and clutching Mr Rabbit, she leaves hospital and stumbles straight into a curious lust triangle with the man from The Sunday Telegraph and his posh fashion-writer girlfriend, and thence into the arms of a man from Scotland Yard with a passion for caravanning.

In Cleave's jaundiced post-apocalyptic vision, London is a city where Muslims are dismissed from public-sector jobs, a curfew is imposed, senior policemen talk about "Johnny Arab" not being able to get to Heaven "without sending us to hell", and Elton John's new song, "England's Heart is Bleeding", lodges permanently at No 1 in the charts.

Meanwhile, the British public are not the resolute and level-headed people who suffered on 7 July, but a selfish, amoral bunch, prime examples of the Western decadence that bin Laden's fanatics are so bloodily jihading. Amid the pornographic turmoil of the burning stadium, a burly Arsenal-Chelsea duo battle over the torn-off flesh of a £4m football star. Across the capital, post-traumatic stress takes the form of an epidemic of boozing and shagging.

Cleave's narrator is very much part of the zeitgeist. Despite her permanently inebriated state, she has the power - through her contact with the Fourth Estate - to take action when, after a sex session with Scotland Yard on the London Eye, she learns that the government was almost as responsible for the death of her loved ones as bin Laden himself.

It's a wild journey, and a queasy one, and will make quite a film, with those barrage balloons flying high over the blood-filled Thames. I would choose Hieronymus Bosch to direct. But through no fault of Cleave's, Incendiary is hard to read in the wake of what actually happened, as opposed to what a novelist has imagined. It's unfair to compare imagined scenarios and real events - but when the two are so uncannily twinned, as they are now, you can't help doing it. And feeling glad to be no part of Chris Cleave's world.

Liz Jensen's 'The Ninth Life of Louis Drax' is published in paperback by Bloomsbury

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