A grieving widow and mother composes a letter to Osama Bin Laden.
At points, Cleave’s oddly elegant debut novel about the soul-corroding effects of modern terrorism seems like something George Orwell might have written during the Blitz, had he been a little less concerned with the niceties of punctuation. Cleave opens with a high-wire burst of stream-of-consciousness grief on the part of a youngish but now careworn woman whose husband and son have been killed in a horrific suicide attack on the Arsenal football stadium: “I saw the video you made Osama where you said the West was decadent. Maybe you mean the West End? We aren’t all like that. London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking.” Sinking into her mourning, she attempts to comfort herself with the thought that at least her son died in the company of his beloved father. It is not enough; sadness gives way to denial, and denial gives way to fury as the bereaved of London begin to suspect that the government knew something about the impending carnage and did nothing to stop it. Our narrator falls in with a fiercely ambitious columnist and an investigative journalist, with whom she had a brief, formless affair before the attack. Working as a civilian in an antiterrorist police unit at Scotland Yard, and urged on by her confidants, she discovers bits and pieces of information that, just in time for a new attack, collectively do much to slip the tether off whatever small mooring she has left in the world: “It is Christmas Eve Osama and this morning I decided you were right after all. . . . Some people are cruel and selfish and the world would be better off without them.”
Who knows what? Whom can we trust? Like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Cleave’s provocative debut will make readers a little uneasy—and that’s okay.