The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries

A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea. 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 de...

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Title:The Incendiaries
Author:R.O. Kwon
Rating:
Edition Language:English

The Incendiaries Reviews

  • Emily

    This is an incredibly strong book, but it's also deeply uncomfortable to read.

    This book follows one character's descent into a cult, told from the perspective of her boyfriend. Kwon does an AMAZING job of simultaneously capturing what draws Phoebe towards the cult's leader, John Leal,

    highlighting how creepy and invasive the cult leader is. It forces you to empathize with Phoebe while maintaining awareness of how manipulative John Leal is. Because of this, you can never write Phoebe's decisi

    This is an incredibly strong book, but it's also deeply uncomfortable to read.

    This book follows one character's descent into a cult, told from the perspective of her boyfriend. Kwon does an AMAZING job of simultaneously capturing what draws Phoebe towards the cult's leader, John Leal,

    highlighting how creepy and invasive the cult leader is. It forces you to empathize with Phoebe while maintaining awareness of how manipulative John Leal is. Because of this, you can never write Phoebe's decisions off as just plain "bad." You understand why she falls in with the Jejah cult, why she trusts John Leal, why and how she becomes radicalized, and it makes you, as a reader, feel deeply conflicted and uncomfortable.

    I enjoyed the structure of this book quite a bit as well. There are small excerpt chapters about John Leal's life, and they are unsettling. We get a tiny glimpse into his life, but you never fully understand him, mirroring the experiences of the rest of the characters. The majority of the book is told from Will's perspective. He reiterates that he can't be sure he remembers things correctly, or if parts of his memory are entirely fabricated in hindsight. We get chapters that seem to be from Phoebe's perspective, but at times it's not clear if we are truly reading her thoughts, or if we are reading Will's best guesses at what her thoughts might be. Kwon plays around with perspective, so at times it's very clear ("Phoebe might have said...") and at times it's not. This emphasizes Will's own uncertainty over his memories, and is a brilliant literary device.

    The book uses A LOT of religious imagery, so an understanding of some of the tenants of Christianity will heighten your reading experience. Kwon's prose is masterful--each word feels completely intentional.

    If you're up for an incredible, uncomfortable ride, I definitely recommend checking this out.

    TW: rape, suicide, some violence.

  • Lou

    I wanted to grab a copy of this book as it sounded so, so good, but I somehow managed to not download it time, and it was archived on NetGalley before I could get it. I knew I still wanted to read it, so I decided to purchase it, and having now read it, I am pleased I didn't just move on. This book blew me away. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion. I absolutely loved it! Because of that I didn't mind purchasing my copy, it will take pride of place on my bookshelf! An astonishing deb

    I wanted to grab a copy of this book as it sounded so, so good, but I somehow managed to not download it time, and it was archived on NetGalley before I could get it. I knew I still wanted to read it, so I decided to purchase it, and having now read it, I am pleased I didn't just move on. This book blew me away. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion. I absolutely loved it! Because of that I didn't mind purchasing my copy, it will take pride of place on my bookshelf! An astonishing debut!

    There are so many difficult themes addressed in this book - love, loss, faith, terrorism and violence, to name but a few. I happen to appreciate books that are compelling, but that also explore important themes, and 'The Incendiaries' does this extremely well! This is a powerful, heartfelt novel, that cements Kwon's status amongst the best writers out there today. I found some parts quite uncomfortable, but I expected that as the book really pushes the boundaries. Having had an interest in why people turn to terrorism/cults and the psychology behind it all, I was completely engrossed and found it impossible to tear myself away. There are many surprises within and, at its heart, this is a story about life and humanities compulsion to want to believe that there is a plan for us all, with the aim of bringing answers about life and its inherent meaning. It focuses in on many philosophical principles surrounding existence, reason and knowledge, and the belief that there is an all seeing entity who has the power to forgive us for our sins.

    The three main characters - Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin and John Leal - are all flawed individuals, each with their own plans on what they want from life. When their paths cross, life will no longer remain the same for any of them. Leal, the leader of the cult Jejah, is a secretive person, who manipulates and controls everyone around him, much like all cult leaders past and present have done. These people will forever be connected by their actions.

    This is one of those books I will reread and return to time and time again. Thought-provoking, emotional, and a book that vividly portrays both the prettiest and the ugliest traits humans have to offer. Although a short read, it packs a powerful punch and has the ability to make you question the world around you. The prose was wonderfully lyrical and of beautiful quality, and the use of unusual and complex perspectives contributed to the intrigue. An unforgettable tale from an incredibly talented author, I cannot wait to see what Kwon will publish in the future!

    Many thanks to Virago for an ARC. I was not required to post a review, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. My apologies for mistakenly thinking i'd downloaded it and only realising I hadn't when I saw it had been archived. As I feel I had committed to providing a review when I requested the book, I bought a copy in order to provide a review.

  • Jessica Woodbury

    I don't know if I can actually write a review of this book because all of my feelings about it (and there are so many) are extremely personal. My experience with this book is unlikely to be universal, but it's the only one I have to write about.

    It wouldn't be fair for me to start off with all of my own stuff that I bring to this book, so I'll start with the most objective review I can provide (which is admittedly not very objective for all the reasons below). This is an ambitious and impressive

    I don't know if I can actually write a review of this book because all of my feelings about it (and there are so many) are extremely personal. My experience with this book is unlikely to be universal, but it's the only one I have to write about.

    It wouldn't be fair for me to start off with all of my own stuff that I bring to this book, so I'll start with the most objective review I can provide (which is admittedly not very objective for all the reasons below). This is an ambitious and impressive debut. Will, who has lost his faith and is struggling without it, falls in love with Phoebe, who joins a small religious sect that becomes increasingly more extreme. Will struggles to understand not just Phoebe, who guards herself and her traumas deeply, but her new faith. Kwon is using a well-known format to address the kind of questions few dare to address through fiction. She has no interest in making this book comfortable or easy, she is not going to present characters who are simple and straightforward. She is not going to answer all of your questions or give you people to root for. The characters here are complex and damaged and struggling to figure out the kinds of big questions that can take over your whole life when you are a young adult. Her study of faith and the loss of faith here is one of the best I've seen and I want to see much more from her.

    And now for the me part.

    I knew I had to read this book after seeing

    about its subject matter and her own experience growing up very religious only to leave religion behind. That's an experience I've had too, and one thing that hasn't changed in my journey from very religious to not religious at all is my frustration at how rarely and poorly religion is depicted in literature. It almost never reflects the kind of experience I had or those I've seen, it almost never appears with empathy around belief or an attempt to understand faith. It is something I am writing about myself and a subject I seek out whenever I can find it. (See my "religion" shelf) I knew I would read this novel and I was hopeful that I would see some of what I've hoped for in it.

    Faith, gaining it and losing it, is Kwon's central concern and there were times in this book when the pinpoint accuracy of a feeling would hit me right in the gut. Will, our protagonist, is still reeling from his loss of faith and searching for something to fill the void where God once existed. Will gave me so much of what I want, he understands belief and faith, he understands their power, but in a lot of ways he also doesn't understand it. He has passed the point where he can justify faith even if he remembers it distinctly. This depiction of complex emotion and struggle was my very favorite thing about the book. Will's experience is not the same as mine, my sense of loss was quite different, but much of it felt familiar and it rang very true.

    The counterpoint to Will is Phoebe, the girl he falls in love with. Although really it's more that he becomes obsessed with her, that she begins to fill that void in his life. And this is the part of the book that was much trickier for me. To once again make it about me and my own subjectivity, I really struggle with stories where a man is obsessed with a woman, where she is the center of his narrative, where he struggles (in vain) to understand her but she always remains somehow unknowable. There are a lot of gender dynamics in this trope that bother me. And clearly Kwon knows this, she is riffing on this trope and using it to explore her question of faith in a way that is certainly much more interesting than the trope usually is. Phoebe becomes a member of a small religious sect called the Jejah, and Will's inability to understand her is less about her gender and her race (she is Korean, he is white) and more about their fundamental divide on faith. He tries as hard as he can to understand her belief, to try and understand what it means to her. But Phoebe is an enigma, even the portions of the book that seem to be from her point of view are actually Will trying to imagine her point of view. It's another interesting narrative choice, but one that was hard for me. I can see clearly the argument for making this completely Will's story, but Phoebe's actual voice is sorely missed.

    It is hard for me at this moment to read a book that is about a woman where that woman's voice is actually a man's. Yes I know the author is a woman. If a man wrote this that would be another thing all together. Complicating matters, our window into Phoebe is a man whose behavior towards her over the course of their relationship is problematic and even criminal, and while he can acknowledge that bad behavior he does not ever grapple with it in a meaningful way. Again, it's a clear choice on Kwon's part, it makes the story even more affecting and troubling. But it also highlights one thing that was missing for me: the question of morality when you lose religion. When your moral philosophy has always been provided for you, creating your own is one of the major struggles when you lose your faith.

    Like I said, I'm having real trouble talking about this book without talking about my own baggage. It's impossible for me to separate the two. Even the prose is hard for me to speak to, because Kwon's style is one that is not always my personal cup of tea even though it is good prose. I wanted to be able to dig into things a little more and this book refused to let me do that, and that struggle is part of why it is so good.

    I have no idea how people who have not experienced religion and the loss of it deeply will experience this book, or even how people who are not me who have lost religion will experience it. My experience is so specific, I can't recall ever encountering a book that led me to grapple so deeply with my questions about religion in fiction, so even though I've been quite critical, it only comes after much thought and ruminating. So feel free to take everything I've said and disregard it entirely.

  • Ron Charles

    “The Incendiaries” is a sharp little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon, the 35-year-old Korean American author, doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system.

    At its core, “The Incendiaries” is about religious fervor, which has long functioned as America’s nuclear fuel: useful and energizing, except when it me

    “The Incendiaries” is a sharp little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon, the 35-year-old Korean American author, doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system.

    At its core, “The Incendiaries” is about religious fervor, which has long functioned as America’s nuclear fuel: useful and energizing, except when it melts down and explodes. The Pilgrims, after all, were motivated by faith in their special calling. So, too, were the members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. But nuance is the first thing sacrificed in most arguments about the relative blessings and dangers of faith — which is what makes “The Incendiaries” so. . .

  • Roxane

    This novel about a young woman becoming immersed with a cult is beautifully written and full of propulsive tension. Will, as the primary narrator, is a fascinating character. It is clear he sees the world in a very narrow way, to his detriment and also Phoebe’s, his girlfriend for most of the novel. When focused on Will’s POV the novel soars. It is uneven though when focusing on John Leal and Phoebe and that’s a shame as they are both integral to the novel’s climax. I would have loved to see Pho

    This novel about a young woman becoming immersed with a cult is beautifully written and full of propulsive tension. Will, as the primary narrator, is a fascinating character. It is clear he sees the world in a very narrow way, to his detriment and also Phoebe’s, his girlfriend for most of the novel. When focused on Will’s POV the novel soars. It is uneven though when focusing on John Leal and Phoebe and that’s a shame as they are both integral to the novel’s climax. I would have loved to see Phoebe more fully fleshed out but perhaps her elusiveness is the point after all. That we can never really know why some people give themselves over so completely to that which they (want to) believe in.

  • Whispering Stories

    Book Reviewed by Stacey on

    The Incendiaries follows the lives of Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin, and John Leal. The book is written in the third person and in alternating short chapters. Will is an American student studying at Edwards University in New York, he has recently transferred there after dropping out from his Bible College in California after losing his faith.

    Not long after transferring he meets Phoebe who is also a student there. She is originally from South Korea b

    Book Reviewed by Stacey on

    The Incendiaries follows the lives of Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin, and John Leal. The book is written in the third person and in alternating short chapters. Will is an American student studying at Edwards University in New York, he has recently transferred there after dropping out from his Bible College in California after losing his faith.

    Not long after transferring he meets Phoebe who is also a student there. She is originally from South Korea but moved to America with her mum when she was just a baby after her mum fled her husband and his overbearing family. She too is struggling with her faith, especially after her mum dies in a car crash.

    John Leal is the leader of a religious cult called Jejah. He’s been through some harrowing experiences in China and South Korea and helped people who fled from North Korea. He was also held as a prisoner in North Korea for a while too. He has some radical ideas that he pushes onto his followers.

    Phoebe finds herself being drawn more and more into the cult and what they stand for. She is grasping onto some kind of religious faith but doesn’t seem to realise the damage that this cult is doing. Will is obsessed with Phoebe and whilst he can see what is happening he won’t walk away from Phoebe. Even when people start dying from the actions of the cult.

    I have to say this is one of the hardest books I have ever read, and one of the hardest reviews I’ve written too. I do feel though that it might be down to my own faith, of which I have none. I’m not religious, never have been religious, so I don’t know what it is like to lose your faith and to question everything you have ever been taught regarding it. To suddenly believe that your whole life has been some kind of lie.

    I can understand Phoebe being pulled into a movement where the followers and especially the leader is showing you love like you’ve never known it and that they seem to know you better than you know yourself. I’m no expert on cults or religious movements but did wonder if someone would become so fully involved so quickly changing from someone who loves to party to a fully fledged fanatic giving all her time to the movement.

    The book makes you look at the world around you. It certainly opened my eyes and made me feel a little uncomfortable too. The complex plot looks at how faith and the loss of it can affect a person’s well-being, both mentally and physically. If you are religious then this book may speak to you more than it did to me, especially if you have ever questioned your faith.

    There’s no doubt that this is a powerful book and it’s hard to believe that it has been written by a debut novelist. This is a book that will get people talking and would be perfect for books clubs as the storyline gives you lots to analyse.

  • Hannah

    I have many thoughts about this book and I am very conflicted about my feelings and my rating. As is customary in such cases, here are my thoughts, first in list form than more elaborated:

    Pros:

    - prose

    - the interesting way R. O. Kwon plays with perspective

    - the subversion of tropes

    Cons:

    - plot

    - characters

    This book is told from three perspectives: Will, who has lost his faith in god and his plan for his life, his girlfriend Phoebe, who lost her faith in her piano talent and her mother, and John, th

    I have many thoughts about this book and I am very conflicted about my feelings and my rating. As is customary in such cases, here are my thoughts, first in list form than more elaborated:

    Pros:

    - prose

    - the interesting way R. O. Kwon plays with perspective

    - the subversion of tropes

    Cons:

    - plot

    - characters

    This book is told from three perspectives: Will, who has lost his faith in god and his plan for his life, his girlfriend Phoebe, who lost her faith in her piano talent and her mother, and John, the enigmatic cult leader whose cult Phoebe starts following. Or, more exactly, the story is told from these perspectives as Will imagines them. I loved the way this worked out and I love the extra layer of interpretation this opened up. Phoebe is for all intents and purposes Will’s manic pixie dream girl – but R. O. Kwon never lets the reader forget that he constructs her in a way that suits himself, without much regard to the person she really is. I cannot help but wonder if this construction of Phoebe and the subsequent unfolding of events isn’t a direct reaction to a plethora of novels that treat their female characters only as a foil for the male character to develop.

    There is something mesmerizing in the way R. O. Kwon’s language flows. She has a way of structuring her sentences that enthralled me. I was hooked by her writing style from the very first chapters. Whatever problems I had with this book, her language is incredibly strong in a way that I found unique.

    But even though the novels hits many high points for me and I am so very glad to have read it (and cannot wait for more people to read it so we can talk about my more spoilery thoughts), ultimately it did not quite work for me. I found the plot and the character development to be fairly weak as well as not that original. Especially the last part of the book made me mostly impatient with Will and made me question if his characterisation was all that successful. His obsession with Phoebe (obviously meant to be a replacement for his lost faith), while believable in the beginning, became less so as time went on.

    I also think that the book would have worked better without the added perspective of John (or more, what Will imagined John to think like), for me these chapters, while short, always took me right out of the flow. But nevertheless, R. O. Kwon is a major talent and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

    I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Virago (Little, Brown Book Group UK) in exchange for an honest review.

    You can find this review and other thoughts on books on

  • Elyse

    Intriguing, tragic, odd....

    Will, (white), no longer believes in God. No longer believes in Christianity. He left his Bible College for Edwards University. He’s struggling with identity.

    Phoebe ( Korean), no longer believes in playing the piano. “Why continue if can’t be a ‘brilliant’ pianist?”

    Will meets Phoebe at Edwards. He ‘does’ believe in Phoebe. Rather he becomes obsessed.

    Enter John Leal, leader of the Jejah - a religious cult - group. Phoebe gets drawn in. Will is worried for Phoebe.

    Both

    Intriguing, tragic, odd....

    Will, (white), no longer believes in God. No longer believes in Christianity. He left his Bible College for Edwards University. He’s struggling with identity.

    Phoebe ( Korean), no longer believes in playing the piano. “Why continue if can’t be a ‘brilliant’ pianist?”

    Will meets Phoebe at Edwards. He ‘does’ believe in Phoebe. Rather he becomes obsessed.

    Enter John Leal, leader of the Jejah - a religious cult - group. Phoebe gets drawn in. Will is worried for Phoebe.

    Both Phoebe and Will have secrets, and are dealing with loss. Both are struggling with their faith - They’re vulnerable in the way young college-coming of age students often are.

    This book was a combination of....

    a little confusing...( as to what I’m most suppose to take away from this novel), mysterious & eerie...

    creepy violence....

    Short! Maybe longer would have allowed me to feel more passion for this book.

    I didn’t feel a deep connection to the characters or story - yet I couldn’t pull away from Kwan’s writing either. It’s eloquent.

    I felt ‘something’....yet I don’t have a strong analysis of this slim book either.

    Many issues are covered - I honestly need to think about this novel a little longer or read it again.

    3.5 rating ... appreciated it - yet I’m grappling with the book’s overall purpose.

  • Lauren Halster

    "Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone." "The room clattered into motion." Inanimate objects verbed. So many inanimate objects did so much verbing. Limbs throbbed. Fingers flew over keyboards. Eyes rolled. Pages flipped. My brain wondered why everyone liked this book so much. Reviews bought it and slobbered. Prose purpled itself into oblivion. Plots did not happen. Sentences sparkled themselves to death. Character motivations made no sense. Hemingway's grave was rolled over in.

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