Thank you to the lovely people at Riverhead Books for my copy of The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. All thoughts and images are my own.
This is simply a brilliant debut novel. Kwon quickly immerses the reader in Edwards, a liberal arts college in New England. The collegiate image Kwon paints is accessible in its quintessence – picture the first small, Northeastern college that comes to mind, any college, and you know exactly what Edwards is like: the grassy quads, the smart but aloof students, the icy winters, and the ghost town feeling of summers. And subsequently, it’s not hard to imagine feeling out of place in such a homogeneous landscape. So that’s where we find Phoebe and Will – both of out of place, though in very different ways.
As they both get more and more desperate for a sense of connection, we are drawn along with them. Will needs Phoebe in an almost dangerous way. Phoebe needs her religious group in a certainly dangerous way. The desire for a relationship with something outside of themselves goes too far. It causes them both to spiral out of control in an intoxicating way. This book is impossible to put down. And it is perfectly brief – you’ve hit the end so quickly, before you’ve thought you were ready.
Kwon has a beautiful way of stringing words together – of describing unremarkable, quotidian experiences in remarkable ways. I can’t get enough of her style and cannot wait to see what she writes next.
This book is weird and off-putting in just the way the content requires. It will force you to feel uncomfortable. Estrangement and fanaticism feel like especially important topics to visit in this day and age. I highly recommend you read this thought-provoking novel. One week has passed since I’ve finished it, and it’s still crossed my mind every day since.
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SYNOPSIS: (AS TOLD BY THE BACK OF THE BOOK)
Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at an elite American 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 transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. 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 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 darkly glittering, brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.