Wednesday 23 September 2009

'I am London'

by Chris Cleave

A bookseller friend of mine is often mocking me for having highbrow, literary taste, and it's fair to say that whilst we both love books we seldom seem to love the same ones (we once had a big disagreement about The Book Thief). Never let it be said that I don't read commercial fiction though, I've even read Harry Potter for crying out loud, and when he insisted that I try Chris Cleave's début how could I refuse? This tale of the aftermath of a terrorist attack on London was infamously published on July 7th 2005 which meant that book was always seen in that context. The reality of the actual bombings may have taken something away from the fictional development of the aftermath in the novel, but there's no doubting that the initial shock and the mood of defiance that came after it may have struck a chord with readers early on.

The novel is written as a letter to Osama Bin Laden by a mother who loses her young son and husband in a massive bomb attack on Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Her grief is compounded by the guilt of having been committing adultery at the time of the attack (Cleave none-to-subtly bring both events to a climax simultaneously, the explosion even visible from the window of her flat) and her inability to cope with the emotional fallout from both of these. By making it a letter there is the opportunity to create a strong narrative voice and Cleave's narrator is a working class mum living in an ex-council flat. Stylistically she is signified by her inability to use commas (although she seems to have no problem with apostrophe's - unlike me).

London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking...We were not the nice front teeth or the rotten back teeth of London and there are millions of us just like that. The middle classes put up web sites about us. If you're interested just put down that Kalashnikov for a second and look up chav pikey ned or townie in Google.
She can spell Kalishnikov too. Brand names are also used to denote class: The Fendi and Hermes of one middle-class character contrasting with the Findus and Nike of our narrator. I'm not saying it's lazy to indicate character in this way (ok, I am a bit) but the lack of consistency with something like missing punctuation just whiffs slightly of being tricksy, especially from a Guardian columnist. It's also not necessary, because given the length of the novel he is able to show in some genuinely interesting ways the character of this woman who needs comfort physically even before the attacks. The vision of London coping with the devastation is what suffers most from the proximity of the July 7th bombings. Given what we all saw happen afterwards Cleave's creation of a London skyscape filled with barrage balloons strikes a horribly false note. This of course is a work of fiction (and one written before the impact of Islamic fundamentalist violence was really felt) so it may be unfair to see it in those terms. The problem is that it's impossible not to. When Muslims begin to lose jobs in sensitive positions it really does feel more appropriate to view it as a work almost of satire. Those barrage balloons, each carrying the image of a victim, are called The Shield Of Hope and the release of a single by Elton John, England's Heart Is Bleeding, 'that was going to be number 1 probably forever or at least until the sun and stars burned out like cheap lightbulbs and the universe ended for good' are well aimed shots that hit their target.

The way in which our mother becomes entangled in the lives of her lover Jasper and his partner Petra, both journalists for a 'big pompous' newspaper, begins to stretch credulity and that's before we get to her relationship with a chief of police and the conspiracy theory climax. The woman at the centre of the novel is the most interesting thing and the trauma she suffers after rushing to the scene, confronted then by the horrific and blood-soaked reality of the bombing, is written in distressing and harrowing detail. The way that visual memories can flash up and encroach on her recovery is both shocking and haunting, as when she is in a department store changing room on a shopping treat with Petra.

The flames started at the end of Petra's hair and they moved along it like a fuse. They spread to her face quite quickly. Her hair burned yellowy-blue like a gas fire. The lacquer on her lips started to go brown and blister. Her lips started moving but it wasn't Petra's voice that came out it was my boy's. Mummy her lips said help Mummy my hair's on fire it hurts it hurts.

Her degradation as the book progresses is compelling in a way that almost makes the complex plotting redundant. I for one would have been far more interested in examining her reaction to that initial event in more detail. How you feel about the book may well depend on how you feel about the passage below.

You've hurt London Osama but you haven't finished it you never will. London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.


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