The Incendiariesby R.O. Kwon Published 31 Jul 2018
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A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.
Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn't tell anyone she blames herself for her mother's recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.
Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe's Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he's tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.
The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.
"The Incendiaries" Reviews
This novel about a young woman becoming immersed with a cult is beautifully written and full of propulsive tension. Will, as the primary narrator, is a fascinating character. It is clear he sees the world in a very narrow way, to his detriment and also Phoebe’s, his girlfriend for most of the novel. When focused on Will’s POV the novel soars. It is uneven though when focusing on John Leal and Phoebe and that’s a shame as they are both integral to the novel’s climax. I would have loved to see Phoebe more fully fleshed out but perhaps her elusiveness is the point after all. That we can never really know why some people give themselves over so completely to that which they (want to) believe in.
I don't know if I can actually write a review of this book because all of my feelings about it (and there are so many) are extremely personal. My experience with this book is unlikely to be universal, but it's the only one I have to write about.
It wouldn't be fair for me to start off with all of my own stuff that I bring to this book, so I'll start with the most objective review I can provide (which is admittedly not very objective for all the reasons below). This is an ambitious and impressive debut. Will, who has lost his faith and is struggling without it, falls in love with Phoebe, who joins a small religious sect that becomes increasingly more extreme. Will struggles to understand not just Phoebe, who guards herself and her traumas deeply, but her new faith. Kwon is using a well-known format to address the kind of questions few dare to address through fiction. She has no interest in making this book comfortable or easy, she is not going to present characters who are simple and straightforward. She is not going to answer all of your questions or give you people to root for. The characters here are complex and damaged and struggling to figure out the kinds of big questions that can take over your whole life when you are a young adult. Her study of faith and the loss of faith here is one of the best I've seen and I want to see much more from her.
And now for the me part.
I knew I had to read this book after seeing some of Kwon's comments about its subject matter and her own experience growing up very religious only to leave religion behind. That's an experience I've had too, and one thing that hasn't changed in my journey from very religious to not religious at all is my frustration at how rarely and poorly religion is depicted in literature. It almost never reflects the kind of experience I had or those I've seen, it almost never appears with empathy around belief or an attempt to understand faith. It is something I am writing about myself and a subject I seek out whenever I can find it. (See my "religion" shelf) I knew I would read this novel and I was hopeful that I would see some of what I've hoped for in it.
Faith, gaining it and losing it, is Kwon's central concern and there were times in this book when the pinpoint accuracy of a feeling would hit me right in the gut. Will, our protagonist, is still reeling from his loss of faith and searching for something to fill the void where God once existed. Will gave me so much of what I want, he understands belief and faith, he understands their power, but in a lot of ways he also doesn't understand it. He has passed the point where he can justify faith even if he remembers it distinctly. This depiction of complex emotion and struggle was my very favorite thing about the book. Will's experience is not the same as mine, my sense of loss was quite different, but much of it felt familiar and it rang very true.
The counterpoint to Will is Phoebe, the girl he falls in love with. Although really it's more that he becomes obsessed with her, that she begins to fill that void in his life. And this is the part of the book that was much trickier for me. To once again make it about me and my own subjectivity, I really struggle with stories where a man is obsessed with a woman, where she is the center of his narrative, where he struggles (in vain) to understand her but she always remains somehow unknowable. There are a lot of gender dynamics in this trope that bother me. And clearly Kwon knows this, she is riffing on this trope and using it to explore her question of faith in a way that is certainly much more interesting than the trope usually is. Phoebe becomes a member of a small religious sect called the Jejah, and Will's inability to understand her is less about her gender and her race (she is Korean, he is white) and more about their fundamental divide on faith. He tries as hard as he can to understand her belief, to try and understand what it means to her. But Phoebe is an enigma, even the portions of the book that seem to be from her point of view are actually Will trying to imagine her point of view. It's another interesting narrative choice, but one that was hard for me. I can see clearly the argument for making this completely Will's story, but Phoebe's actual voice is sorely missed.
It is hard for me at this moment to read a book that is about a woman where that woman's voice is actually a man's. Yes I know the author is a woman. If a man wrote this that would be another thing all together. Complicating matters, our window into Phoebe is a man whose behavior towards her over the course of their relationship is problematic and even criminal, and while he can acknowledge that bad behavior he does not ever grapple with it in a meaningful way. Again, it's a clear choice on Kwon's part, it makes the story even more affecting and troubling. But it also highlights one thing that was missing for me: the question of morality when you lose religion. When your moral philosophy has always been provided for you, creating your own is one of the major struggles when you lose your faith.
Like I said, I'm having real trouble talking about this book without talking about my own baggage. It's impossible for me to separate the two. Even the prose is hard for me to speak to, because Kwon's style is one that is not always my personal cup of tea even though it is good prose. I wanted to be able to dig into things a little more and this book refused to let me do that, and that struggle is part of why it is so good.
I have no idea how people who have not experienced religion and the loss of it deeply will experience this book, or even how people who are not me who have lost religion will experience it. My experience is so specific, I can't recall ever encountering a book that led me to grapple so deeply with my questions about religion in fiction, so even though I've been quite critical, it only comes after much thought and ruminating. So feel free to take everything I've said and disregard it entirely.
"Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone." "The room clattered into motion." Inanimate objects verbed. So many inanimate objects did so much verbing. Limbs throbbed. Fingers flew over keyboards. Eyes rolled. Pages flipped. My brain wondered why everyone liked this book so much. Reviews bought it and slobbered. Prose purpled itself into oblivion. Plots did not happen. Sentences sparkled themselves to death. Character motivations made no sense. Hemingway's grave was rolled over in.
I wanted to grab a copy of this book as it sounded so, so good, but I somehow managed to not download it time, and it was archived on NetGalley before I could get it. I knew I still wanted to read it, so I decided to purchase it, and having now read it, I am pleased I didn't just move on. This book blew me away. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion. I absolutely loved it! Because of that I didn't mind purchasing my copy, it will take pride of place on my bookshelf! An astonishing debut!
There are so many difficult themes addressed in this book - love, loss, faith, terrorism and violence, to name but a few. I happen to appreciate books that are compelling, but that also explore important themes, and 'The Incendiaries' does this extremely well! This is a powerful, heartfelt novel, that cements Kwon's status amongst the best writers out there today. I found some parts quite uncomfortable, but I expected that as the book really pushes the boundaries. Having had an interest in why people turn to terrorism/cults and the psychology behind it all, I was completely engrossed and found it impossible to tear myself away. There are many surprises within and, at its heart, this is a story about life and humanities compulsion to want to believe that there is a plan for us all, with the aim of bringing answers about life and its inherent meaning. It focuses in on many philosophical principles surrounding existence, reason and knowledge, and the belief that there is an all seeing entity who has the power to forgive us for our sins.
The three main characters - Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin and John Leal - are all flawed individuals, each with their own plans on what they want from life. When their paths cross, life will no longer remain the same for any of them. Leal, the leader of the cult Jejah, is a secretive person, who manipulates and controls everyone around him, much like all cult leaders past and present have done. These people will forever be connected by their actions.
This is one of those books I will reread and return to time and time again. Thought-provoking, emotional, and a book that vividly portrays both the prettiest and the ugliest traits humans have to offer. Although a short read, it packs a powerful punch and has the ability to make you question the world around you. The prose was wonderfully lyrical and of beautiful quality, and the use of unusual and complex perspectives contributed to the intrigue. An unforgettable tale from an incredibly talented author, I cannot wait to see what Kwon will publish in the future!
Many thanks to Virago for an ARC. I was not required to post a review, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. My apologies for mistakenly thinking i'd downloaded it and only realising I hadn't when I saw it had been archived. As I feel I had committed to providing a review when I requested the book, I bought a copy in order to provide a review.
“The Incendiaries” is a sharp little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon, the 35-year-old Korean American author, doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system.
At its core, “The Incendiaries” is about religious fervor, which has long functioned as America’s nuclear fuel: useful and energizing, except when it melts down and explodes. The Pilgrims, after all, were motivated by faith in their special calling. So, too, were the members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. But nuance is the first thing sacrificed in most arguments about the relative blessings and dangers of faith — which is what makes “The Incendiaries” so. . .
To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
This is an incredibly strong book, but it's also deeply uncomfortable to read.
This book follows one character's descent into a cult, told from the perspective of her boyfriend. Kwon does an AMAZING job of simultaneously capturing what draws Phoebe towards the cult's leader, John Leal, and highlighting how creepy and invasive the cult leader is. It forces you to empathize with Phoebe while maintaining awareness of how manipulative John Leal is. Because of this, you can never write Phoebe's decisions off as just plain "bad." You understand why she falls in with the Jejah cult, why she trusts John Leal, why and how she becomes radicalized, and it makes you, as a reader, feel deeply conflicted and uncomfortable.
I enjoyed the structure of this book quite a bit as well. There are small excerpt chapters about John Leal's life, and they are unsettling. We get a tiny glimpse into his life, but you never fully understand him, mirroring the experiences of the rest of the characters. The majority of the book is told from Will's perspective. He reiterates that he can't be sure he remembers things correctly, or if parts of his memory are entirely fabricated in hindsight. We get chapters that seem to be from Phoebe's perspective, but at times it's not clear if we are truly reading her thoughts, or if we are reading Will's best guesses at what her thoughts might be. Kwon plays around with perspective, so at times it's very clear ("Phoebe might have said...") and at times it's not. This emphasizes Will's own uncertainty over his memories, and is a brilliant literary device.
The book uses A LOT of religious imagery, so an understanding of some of the tenants of Christianity will heighten your reading experience. Kwon's prose is masterful--each word feels completely intentional.
If you're up for an incredible, uncomfortable ride, I definitely recommend checking this out.
TW: rape, suicide, some violence.