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 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 increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. 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 fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.
Oh, I’d noticed occasional mild deceptions, the milk lies of love, but I hadn’t known Phoebe to be dishonest, not like this. But I’d lied so long, I’d found how natural it could be. I let the tea soak. I took a second pill, then I called Phoebe, giving in.
First of all, thank you to Little, Brown UK/Virago Press for sending me a copy and inviting me to be a part of the blog tour.
The Incendiaries follows a character’s descent into a religious cult told from the perspective of her boyfriend through intense and often volatile memories. I was hooked instantly by Kwon’s vivid and poetic prose. Nobody in The Incendiaries is wholly trustworthy, even the intensely likeable Will is lying. We sympathise with him as he hides his poverty, pretending to be able to afford the college’s luxurious social scene. While Phoebe, who Kwon describes as living “as if spotlit…each laugh, evidential, loud”, uses her exuberant personality to mask her traumatic past and battle with depression. Right off the bat, Kwon conveys the magnetic allure of John Leal, the cult’s leader. Sections involving Leal ooze creepiness as he manages to captivate and manipulate Phoebe and her personal tragedies.
Through Kwon’s clever writing, we are made to relate to these characters and to understand their motivations. No matter how much we disagree, we can never truly write Phoebe’s actions off as plain evil. It was fascinating and often unsettling to read as she falls for Leal’s messianic act and becomes deeply entangled within the Jejah cult.
Kwon offers us tiny glimpses into Leal’s life, but he remains dubious. A menacing and manipulative mystery. Most of The Incendiaries is focused on Will, following his efforts as he tries in earnest to win over Phoebe as she slips further and further under the cult’s influence. His struggle when he realises that he’s losing the power to save the girl he loves is truly heartbreaking and magnificently portrayed by Kwon.
I was intrigued by the religious imagery in The Incendiaries and the spotlight it shines on religious fanaticism. Leal notes the Koreans devotion despite being starved and beaten in a prison camp and this prompts him to realise “some people need leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith” and this is what sets him on his mission when he gets back to America and targets vulnerable individuals like Phoebe.
Full of longing and tragic agony, The Incendiaries is a stunning exploration of grief, violence and faith. It’s an ambitious debut from Kwon and she couldn’t have pulled it off any more flawlessly. Her haunting prose paired with such a timely subject made for an enthralling and eerie read. I am very excited to see what she writes next!