Book Review ~ The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Synopsis of The Incendiaries

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 by R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries is the debut novel of R.O. Kwon, and when I was offered a copy of the book to review, I was immediately drawn in by the synopsis. Handled with the right amount of care, terrorism can be a rich theme for novelists to explore in stories, with the additional lure that this is not your run of the mill story about Islamic extremism, but a story that explores fundamentalism of a different kind. I’m also trying to make it a point to read more diversely, so a story about a young Korean-American woman fits into that perfectly.

This is an extremely compelling story, and at just over 200 pages, makes for a short read too. I managed to get through it in a couple of sittings, something that isn’t always a given, no matter how long the book is. The story is one that I wanted to get to the end of, especially as the acts of terrorism were not kept a secret to the end of the novel, and I wanted to find out more; it’s not about what happened, it’s about why it happened.

I don’t read an awful lot of literary fiction, and so every time I do, I have to re-adjust to the style; The Incendiaries doesn’t use dialogue, preferring reported speech, and this isn’t something that I’m used to. But a couple of chapters is all it took adjust, and it’s clear why this choice is made; the novel is split into the narrative of the three main characters (Phoebe, Will and John Leal), but the sense is that we’re hearing someone give us the details of the events, rather than us getting every single last detail.  Phoebe is presented to us through the lens of Will, while John Leal is not fully revealed to us, and he remains a mysterious character throughout the novel.

Phoebe is the character who is the most polarising, because it is so easy to identify with her, while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from her actions. It’s terrifying to watch her fall under Leal’s spell, further away from Will’s attempts to save her, and it did make me wonder how quickly a cult leader could work his magic on me. Though I consider myself a fairly strong character, if I was as vulnerable as Phoebe, trying to escape from a tragic past, would I be able to resist?

This is a wonderful debut, and though the story and the short length propel the narrative making it a quick read, it’s anything but an easy book. It’s a thought-provoking story that I’m sure will stay with me.

The Incendiaries
Publication Date: 6th September 2018
Virago
Provided by publisher

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