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. Read more