Trigger warning: sexual assault
Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.
Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist 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 powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.
Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.
The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.
Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.
Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.
The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.