The city of London has suffered a devastating terrorist attack, with over one thousand of its inhabitants innocently slaughtered. The city is now under siege - nightly curfews have been enacted, Moslems interned and banned from working in public service industries, helicopters constantly patrol overhead, and above the city hangs a series of gigantic barrage balloons, the images of the victims imprinted on them - hung, ostensibly to remind people of the terrible tragedy, but also to prevent terrorists from running planes into the city's landmarks.
Against this terrifying background, a narrator simply called Petal writes a letter to Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist. Petal's world is simple; she is a working-class woman who lives in a flat of dirty East End brick tower blocks "that smell of chip fat inside." Petal is also wife to a police bomb disposal expert, mother to a four-year-old boy, and fond of casual sex.
One day, our heroine is watching a football match on television while she has sex with a gutless cynic, Jasper Black, a Sunday Telegraph journalist who gets turned on by Petal's working-class ways. Suddenly, eleven suicide bombers strike, and she sees her husband, son, and a thousand other people instantly incinerated in front of her. Desperate to save her family, Petal races to the scene, but she is injured and ends up spending eight weeks in a London hospital.
After her release, Petal's life is never the same. Plagued with ghostly images of her young son being consumed by flames and begging for her help, Petal seeks solace with Jasper and his pompous and striving upper-class girlfriend Petra, while she is also comforted by Terrence Butcher, her late husband's boss. Petal is fraught with grief and unable to cope with her loss. Her journey is one of insanity mixed with inconsolable defeat, and the only way she can cope is to entreat confidences to Osama Bin Laden, telling him "I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son."
Questions of good and evil, justice and revenge permeate this violent and trenchant tale. As Petal postulates the nature of this madness that "fills the sky with barrage balloons and people's eyes with hate," she becomes almost paralyzed with sorrow: "I can't think of anything else for one second. And I'm so scared all the time. I look at people and I see them blown to bits." To Petal, every teaspoon that drops now sounds like bombs, and she's scared to carry on even for one more day.
Petal now lives in a London that has turned itself into police state, becoming a misty floating city with the thousand thick cables of the balloons lifting it into the sky. Yet with all her angst and grief, Petal remains steadfast in challenging Osama and the nature of terrorism. The terrorists may be able to topple the office blocks like dominoes, make the Thames run red, and murder with impunity, "but I will only build myself again and stronger/ I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself."
Author Chris Cleave has a richly resilient pumping and fast-paced style, and he deftly weaves the themes of terrorism, class, media, and government cover-ups into the narrative. The pacing never lets up as Petal is thrust from one terrifying situation to another. Her world is left reeling: she watched as her husband and child were torn to bits by rusty nails and bolts flying through the air at supersonic speed, yet the flash of terror is never over because the fire has caught hold inside her, and the noise will never stop. It's a fire that much like the scourge of terrorism keeps roaring on "with incredible noise and fury."