R. O. Kwon’s stunning debut The Incendiaries is a compact and tightly-written campus novel of obsessive love and religious extremism. And I’m excited to tell you about it as part of the blog tour with it being out in the UK today.
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.
At the beginning of The Incendiaries, Will Kendall not only tells us that there’s a bombing but also who he considers responsible for it. And just as scenes of crime officers will collect forensic evidence and try to piece together what happened, when, and who might be responsible for the bombing, here Will attempts to reconstruct his and Phoebe Lin’s story to help him understand why they splinter from each other.
Will’s task makes the text fragmentary at times, and understandably so, especially when telling the story from Phoebe Lin or John Leal’s perspective: memories recalled resemble the shards of debris recovered from a blast site. It’s often difficult to work out their significance at the time and some may never be recovered.
The Incendiaries is a fascinating take on the unreliable narrator with the novel appearing to be told from three different perspectives. Initially unclear and helpfully blurred over by the absence of speech marks, two perspectives are related to us in reported speech. Some scenes are imagined, rather than reported faithfully from testimony or witness statement, and variations occur when people recount their own history. Phoebe is reluctant to reveal hers except to select friends or in Jejah (the group) confession; it’s unclear whether John Leal’s is real, based on some truth but embellished or a total construct.
As the main narrator, Will is perhaps the most troublesome of all, given he took the opportunity of coming to college to create the new persona and background he thought he needed in order to pass at this East Coast college after transferring in from his Californian bible school. When he confesses to Phoebe one night, he admits that he would do it all over again if he had to. What’s even more concerning and disturbing, though, is how little attention he appears to pay to his own role in Phoebe’s disappearance. He either doesn’t register or glosses over his part in it, even in the face of Julian’s reaction to him.
What’s refreshing about The Incendiaries is R. O. Kwon choice of extremist group and their links to what is supposed to be a prestigious East Coast college. It’s also where Will has chosen to make his own escape from his Christian fundamentalism past. This push away from what he once saw as his calling contrasts sharply with how Phoebe feels pulled towards Jejah. Despite his own loss of faith and the hole that’s left in his life, Will seems slow to realise or appreciate that Phoebe is similarly untethered and suffering from loss, and struggles when his attempts to expose the group’s purpose and enigmatic leader to her flounder.
In addition to his, the novel’s main protagonists are no fanatical imports but Americans: Will moves across the States from one coast to another to try and make a new start and become someone different; John Leal has spent time abroad, most notably in China and if he’s to be believed in North Korea, but he was a product of the East Coast before that changed his ambitions; and Phoebe Lin is the daughter of an American-Korean family although she’s never travelled to Korea and feels no great affinity towards it.
Reading The Incendiaries is like watching an explosion at the beginning of a TV show and then seeing all the pieces come back together in slow motion, before following the story of how we reach the point of that explosion over the next hour. After watching the moment of detonation from that college rooftop, R. O. Kwon takes us right back to those first sparks manufactured when Will and Phoebe meet. And from there I followed the twisting trail of their relationship, while it negotiates college and persuasive outside influences, with much the same wide-eyed fascination I used to watch a lit fuse in a cartoon or action film.
Dealing with themes of loss and disaffection, faith and absolution, identity and how we present to others, no word is wasted in The Incendiaries. Each sentence is measured and carefully balanced, but often loaded with meaning. The Incendiaries is a a slow burn of a novel that leaves its mark and is an impressive debut.
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. It’s out today as an audiobook, an ebook and in hardback. You can buy it from Amazon UK or through Hive which supports your local independent bookshop instead. R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States. For more info, visit her Author Website, or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Grace Vincent at the publisher for sending me a review copy of The Incendiaries.
#TheIncendiaries blog tour runs all this week, check out the hashtag on Twitter to find other participating blogs including all of today’s listed below.