The Incendiaries: A Novel

by R. O. Kwon

Hardcover, 2018

Call number





Riverhead Books (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 224 pages


"Religion, politics, and love collide in this slim but powerful novel reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, with menace and mystery lurking in every corner." --People Magazine "The most buzzed-about debut of the summer, as it should be...unusual and enticing ... The Incendiaries arrives at precisely the right moment." --The Washington Post "Radiant...A dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism." --New York Times Book Review A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into a cult's acts of terrorism. Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet in 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 drawn into a secretive cult founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past. When the group commits a violent act in the name of faith, Will finds himself struggling to confront a new version of the fanaticism he's worked so hard to escape. Haunting and intense, The Incendiaries is a fractured love story that explores what can befall those who lose what they love most.… (more)

Media reviews

The Incendiaries is a book of careful feints – the emphases in the story never fall where you expect, but Kwon is always in total control.
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The stylish writing and interesting subject matter are lost in a plodding narrative that feels like a paint-by-numbers attempt at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Religious extremism, race, college rape, casual misogyny, North Korea, and abortion are all here in just over 200 pages. The sheer density of hot-button concerns could easily feel sensational, but the text’s immediacy feels effortless and necessary.
Big themes of religion, identity, and death swirl through the pages of The Incendiaries, but Kwon keeps her narrative grounded in the very human experiences of the young couple.
Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does. It’s the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard.
Kwon’s novel is urgent in its timeliness, dizzyingly beautiful in its prose, and poignant in its discovery of three characters fractured by trauma, frantically trying to piece back together their lives.
Kwon is a writer of many talents, and “The Incendiaries” is a debut of dark, startling beauty.
This unusual novel, both raw and finely wrought, leaves the reader with very few answers and little to rely on.
Kwon, who was raised Roman Catholic and has said that she lost her faith in her teens, seems to understand with extraordinary sympathy just what that loss entails. And as her debut novel catches fire and burns toward its feverish conclusion, she offers a strikingly clear articulation of the fanatic’s mind-set: It’s not an excess of belief that drives some believers to violence; it’s a maddening lack of belief, which requires that radical action be substituted for faith.
Kwon’s novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction (the stream-of-consciousness style, complete with leaps between characters, amplifies the subject matter).
Readers who delight in encountering seldom-used words and precise depictions of physical and mental landscapes are likely to love Kwon’s writerly style. Her book is shot through with carefully limned descriptions and unexpected language—“orphic,” “sacerdotal,” “shibboleths,” “harlequin.” Readers who are interested in plot and character, however, may well be less satisfied despite the fact that the basic elements of a gripping story are present.

User reviews

LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon, author; Keong Sim, narrator
This book appears to highlight the plight of the immigrant and the difficulty of adjusting to life when one feels unsuccessful or like a “stranger”, even when fully assimilated. Often, insecurity has its deleterious effect on some as they yearn to belong, but do not feel they do.
A lapsed Christian, Bible School drop-out, Will Kendall, and a guilt-ridden, charismatic young girl, Phoebe Lin, have met and developed a relationship at Edwards. Both of them have had difficult, dysfunctional family histories. These young South Korean college students seem to be searching for acceptance, acknowledgment, love, and respect.
As many young are prone to do, they fall under the spell of a young man, John Leal, who was once imprisoned in the Gulag. This young man is portrayed as a Christ-like figure who now believes he hears the voice of G-d directing his life. He feels it is his duty to direct others, as well. He is charismatic and attracts followers to his cult. When these young students fall prey to their insecurities, making them more vulnerable to outside influences and more gullible, they join this out of the mainstream group. Phoebe actually decides to follow this false god who encourages them to commit acts of terrorism.
I found the book a bit confusing and a little disjointed. Told in alternating chapters titled with the name of each of the main characters, it is about students who were all traumatized in some way, carrying emotional burdens and secrets they could not unload. Also, it as an audio book and the narrator’s reading, in the voice of Will only, made it difficult to discern the voice of the separate characters he described. There was no change in the tone or modulation to accommodate male, female or emotional mood.
Still, it was a creative, imaginative, original idea that deserves attention and discussion to clarify it.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
I wanted to love this so much more since I saw RO Kwon and have heard so many rave reviews. Alas, I found it somewhat forgettable, especially the characters. I didn’t understand a lot of their motivations. There are some really good sentences that stand out, but almost too much that they distract from the story. The characters and plot remind me a lot of A Secret History. It’s a short read so I wouldn’t deter anyone from it, but definitely not one of my faves of the year.… (more)
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
An interesting novel about a young woman who becomes involved in a cult and ends up committing a terrorist act. Told from different perspectives, including the cult leader and the boyfriend who tries to keep her out of trouble, this book attempts to trace the journey of how one gets pulled into an extremist group. It's interesting, but others have tackled this subject matter and written books I enjoyed more. I felt really bad for Will by the end of the book, wondering if he would continue to cling to his idealized vision of who his girlfriend had been.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
R. O. Kwon's debut novel begins with the end; a group of people standing on a rooftop and watching an explosion in the distance and celebrating. And then the book returns to the start of the story, when an awkward sophomore, who transferred from his Bible College when he lost his faith, is standing alone at a party when he has a drink spilled on him by the vivacious, popular Phoebe. Both have secrets. Will's are routine and prosaic - he doesn't have money and to get by works at an Italian restaurant on the other end of town. He also has a difficult relationship with his mother. Phoebe's secrets go much deeper - her mother is dead and she feels it was her fault, the specific circumstances change over the course of the book, and she had devoted her entire childhood to the piano, and once giving that up, she's left floundering for purpose. Which leaves her open to the oddly charismatic John, who reportedly was held for a time in a North Korean labor camp, and who arrives in town and begins to drawn people to him and his version of Christianity, carefully controlling who is allowed in.

A lot is going on in this slender novel. Kwon tells the story from the viewpoints of the two main characters and she dives deeply into who they are and what motivates them. I found Will to be the more compelling character as he struggles with his girlfriend becoming more and more entangled with John's cult, and his own ambivalence about his past. There are a lot of ideas here, presented with some beautiful writing.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.
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LibraryThing member Lauranthalas
I was really excited about this small book because of the cover and that it was longlisted, however it fell flat for me. The writing style was alright, the topics included cults, domestic terrorism, love, loss, and so much more but I wasn’t a fan of the characters (underdeveloped). I was bored and it won’t be a book I shall be keeping.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Troubled Phoebe and impoverished former evangelical Will, students at prestigious Edwards College, are drawn into a mysterious cult. Violence erupts. This lifeless, implausible tale does not live up to the hype.
LibraryThing member katiekrug
This was my book club's selection for January; I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise, but it turned out not to be terrible. High praise, eh?

The story revolves around Will, who was once a fervent evangelical Christian but has lost his faith, and Phoebe, a beautiful and troubled former piano prodigy. They meet in college, and around the same time, Phoebe falls under the influence of John Leal, a cultish figure who plays on people's weaknesses. The novel chronicles the push and pull of Will and Phoebe's relationship, and Will's increasing concern over John Leal's influence. It is narrated by Will, and he's a classic unreliable narrator. The story is well-paced and intriguing but has some major flaws, one of which is that John Leal is not developed enough for the reader to understand his charisma and ability to draw people in. There were also some odd plot holes and narrative choices that weakened an otherwise interesting story. But since it is a debut novel, I would be willing to give Kwon's next effort a whirl, because her writing is (mostly) strong, and she is obviously interested in playing with big ideas.… (more)
LibraryThing member brangwinn
For a book to resonate with me, I need characters with whom I can make a connection. I don’t want them to be like me, but I have to car about them. I never could care about any of the characters in this story which takes place on a private college campus. Mainly told by the boyfriend of the central character, Phoebe, I just kept wanting to tell him to move on with his life or in other words to GROW UP.… (more)
LibraryThing member kayanelson
At times I felt like the writing style felt forced and then it would get into a flow that worked for me. This is the 2nd short book I've read in a row and it was powerful. Dealt with cults, abortion and the resulting terrorism. It's the kind of book that leaves you with questions. Is she alive or isn't she? It's worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
3.5 There were times when this book gripped me as well as confused me. I found myself rooting for the characters, but then I didn't like them. I'm glad I read The Incendiaries, but it was odd.
LibraryThing member grandpahobo
I think this is just not my cup of tea. The story has lots of weight and angst on every page. At times, I felt like I was wading in molasses.
LibraryThing member froxgirl
Ugh, another "nerd tries to save a privileged manic pixie dream girl" story. Nope nope nope.
LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is one of those style-reads. The plot is engaging but an equal player in this story is the delivery. The narration is 'punchy' and not 'flowery' if you understand my meaning. The chapters are short, the energy is up, and none of this is a bad thing by any stretch. Just know that the how is as important as the what here.… (more)




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