The Incendiariesby R.O. Kwon Published 31 Jul 2018
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"In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable." —Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere.
A shocking 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.
Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2018 by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, Time, Parade, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, PBS, Vulture, Buzzfeed, BookRiot, PopSugar, Refinery29, Bustle, The Rumpus, Paste, and BBC.
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
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.
10 out of 5 stars. Wow wow wow are we all discovering a talent in Ms. Kwon. The book is eerie, and unsettling, but also sweet and beautiful... and you read the story from the outside... then all at once a simple narrator change grounds everything, makes it a story you or I could be part of. The genius here is the author's ability to pull you in, then push you all the way out to be an observer, or vice versa. I sympathized with Phoebe until it was time to see her from a distance, which was clever. I took notes about Will until it was time to see through his eyes, and I could. I love this book. I am hungry to read it again. I am eager for many others to read it, too.
This brief little novel takes on a powerful subject, and the result is eerie, sad and profound.
Will meets Phoebe at an elite American college, and is immediately enamored of her. They both hide secret pains from their past, each longing to escape and fill voids—Will’s from the gradual loss of his religion and absence of God, Phoebe’s from the death of her mother.
When Phoebe gets drawn into a religious cult, Will has a bad feeling about it from the start, but is unable to save her as she escalates toward a shocking act of terrorism.
We know from the opening chapter that something horrific happens, and are suspended in a state of dread from that point forward. But The Incendiaries isn’t a page-turning thriller, it’s a pensive meditation on faith, doubt, love and loss as Will tries to make sense of what brought Phoebe to this point.
This is R.O. Kwon’s first novel, and it’s an impressive debut—haunting and luminous.
Simultaneously glittering and hazy, transcendent and soul-dropping, R.O. Kwon's The Incendiaries is an experience I am delightfully mesmerized by. Each sentence has a diamond-cut quality to it, fashioned with precision that feels effortless. Paragraphs moved through me like they weren't even made of words. Often, I felt like I was inhaling Kwon's sentences, which left me, at times, feeling a little high on the spirit of the novel, not unlike the headiness that infects her three mysterious protagonists: Phoebe, Will, and John Leal. My advice: don't operate heavy machinery while reading.
Absolutely loved this one. It's a beautifully written, literary novel, but the darkness of the story and the writing create the kind of eerie atmosphere you'd find in the best psychological suspense. I almost never re-read, but might make an exception for this when everyone's talking about it this summer
I’m delighted to catch this writer at the beginning of her career. This debut novel is stunning, especially in its handling of characters I feel like I’d know if I saw them on the street.