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.
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.
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.
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.
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.