Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

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.

I'd heard lots of good things about The Incendiaries so when the request to take part in the blog tour popped up I had to accept. Virago publish some of my favorite books so I'm so glad I did because, although books like The Incendiaries aren't necessarily my typical read I'm very glad I sometimes take a chance.

The Incendiaries may appear to be a short novel but it packs a powerful punch in those pages. It's a tale of jealousy, religion, fanaticism, and love. The story of Will, Phoebe, and a man called John Leal, Kwon explores a man's loss of faith which has led to some life-changing decisions and his dismay as he watches the woman he loves being drawn deeper and deeper into a religious group named Jejah, by a charismatic man who may or may not be telling the complete truth about his past. As Will falls deeper in love with Phoebe, she, in turn, starts abandoning her friends, her studies, and Will.

The Incendiaries focuses on the character of Will, with Phoebe and John appearing as what feels like support characters. We get to know Will extremely well, about his life before Edwards, his mother's illness and get to explore the reasoning behind his loss of faith. Phoebe remains an enigmatic figure, and although we learn about significant events in her childhood, we don't know much about her as an adult and especially why she is so drawn to John Leal and his cult-like group. John himself remains a shadowy figure throughout the story, looming in the background and appearing at times when Will is feeling at his most vulnerable in his relationship with Phoebe. He claims to be a former prisoner of North Korea, goes barefoot all the time (Kwon's quite graphic description of the state of his feet turned my stomach! But I have a bit of a phobia about going barefoot...) and is charismatic to the point that people flock to him, take part in his group's initiation rites and become distraught if they're cast aside by him.

It becomes clear that the void left by his lack of faith and the absence of God in his life, Will is using Phoebe to fill that hole and his love becomes an obsession rather quickly. It was interesting to this happen as Will himself doesn't really realize this until the end but it's clear to Phoebe's friends, especially the colorful Julian who tells Phoebe to stay away from him.

Ultimately, R.O. Kwon has written a compelling and engrossing story that plays on the tropes of an obsessed man, whose memory is unreliable - at his own admission, and the sections featuring Phoebe could be either her actual memories or Will trying to fill in the blanks, trying to make sense of everything that happens, and the group's descent into extreme violence. Her ability to play with perspective is partially what makes this book so readable, and I think the most important thing for me was being able to read it in one go. It allowed me to immerse myself fully in Will's story, to try and understand exactly what was going on with Will. I liked that Phoebe was never fully fleshed out and that we never got to know her side of the story if we see her sections of the book as being Will's memories rather than her own thoughts. Kwon's writing is wonderful, her ability to draw the reader in from the first page is remarkable for a debut author and such a short novel. Some of her descriptions were so powerful that you can feel yourself in the actual presence of these characters, rather than just picturing them, and I think The Incendiaries fully deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it. 

Please be aware though that The Incendiaries contains mentions of rape, possible suicide and quite a bit of violence.

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon
ISBN - 9780349011875 
Publisher - Virago
Release date - September 6th, 2018

About The Author

R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, was published by Riverhead in the U.S. earlier this year and in September by Virago in the U.K. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.

Huge thanks to Grace Vincent and Virago for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the advance copy I received in exchange for an honest review.

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