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The Incendiaries

Review

The Incendiaries

Razor-sharp and intoxicating, R.O. Kwon’s debut, THE INCENDIARIES, interrogates faith, love and fanaticism. Uncannily timely, ear-bendingly unique and devastatingly familiar, this is one novel absolutely not to be missed.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their freshman year at a prestigious American university.

Phoebe carries herself with grace as she slinks tastefully through parties, seeking the rush and validation of attraction. She’s a picture of unattainable glamour while also manifesting a seemingly effortless approachability. She magnetizes others to her, and when she keeps them at a distance, they hardly notice. Yet her casual wealth comes from the life insurance given to her when her mother was killed in a horrific traffic accident --- and Phoebe had been sitting in the driver’s seat. The guilt is a hungry, hollow thing, mingled with mourning, and it never leaves her skin. She had been a pianist once. She had been just excellent enough to know she’d never achieve a level of true expertise, and that knowledge was encompassingly crushing enough for her to give up. There are spaces in Phoebe. They are hidden away, but they are bloody, gaping places.

"R.O. Kwon wields adroit prose, at times both mesmeric and acerbic. This is a powerhouse of a debut, a masterpiece of fiction and an indictment of blind faith."

Will Kendall was a Christian once. He chose it when his mother first fell ill, when he was a teenager looking for a way to feel like he was actually doing something about it, a place to lay blame and seek hope. He was good at it. He was a child evangelist, preaching and praying in abject devotion. He’s transferring into Phoebe’s school from Bible college, in which he fell out of love with his faith in a quiet way --- which is perhaps the worst kind, though more likely there is no good kind. The loss of faith was a choice, or at least an irrefutable conclusion for him. It’s too simple to say that he wishes he could still believe, but the gap left by the structure and solace of faith is one he doesn’t know what to do with.

When they find each other, they choose each other. Will’s love for Phoebe is a fierce and desperate creature. From the moment he meets her, he wants to save her.

There is another major player here: John Leal, if that is his real name, who pioneers a religious fundamentalist group called Jejah. Phoebe finds herself way deeper and deeper into Jejah, to disastrous conclusions.

THE INCENDIARIES is lyrical, striking and prescient. It’s told from Will’s perspective, in retrospect. Within it, he imagines Phoebe’s perspective, and sometimes John Leal’s. What, then, do we actually know about Phoebe? This novel is a reckoning of how you and the people you know and love can become extremists without realizing it, how easy it can be to lose who you thought you were, and how the potential for irreversible violence can lie within even the best intentions. R.O. Kwon wields adroit prose, at times both mesmeric and acerbic. This is a powerhouse of a debut, a masterpiece of fiction and an indictment of blind faith.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 31, 2018

The Incendiaries
by R.O. Kwon

  • Publication Date: July 31, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735213895
  • ISBN-13: 9780735213890