The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

Well, The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a little power pack of a novel.

I didn’t know much about this book heading in but I was engrossed within the first few pages. In fact, it was perfect welcome-to-lockdown-#4-reading – taut writing, big themes, and a plot that begins with a climatic event and then rewinds to reveal how things unfolded.

The story is focused around Will, who has left behind his fundamentalist Christian Bible college for a prestigious university; Korean/American Phoebe, the glamorous party-girl who’s covering the pain of her mother’s death; and charismatic John Leal, whose links to North Korea and a religious group, lure Phoebe.

Themes of having and losing faith are explored in many ways throughout the book. Aside from the obvious (Will abandoning his Christian beliefs and John Leal’s ‘cult’), Will’s determination to make his relationship with Phoebe work, and the references to Phoebe’s life before university (she was a gifted pianist who turned her back on music when she realised that she’d ‘…rather have no talent than just enough to know how much I lacked‘) provide deeper perspective.

The losses are obvious (Phoebe’s bereavement) and less explicit – Will’s parting from his faith and the subsequent loss of identity.

People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.

At one point, Kwon refers to ‘grief’s narrowed vision‘ – it’s a simple and marvelously accurate description, and we watch Phoebe be lured by John Leal’s fervour, while Will fills his ‘God-shaped hole’ with his love for Phoebe –

While I still had Phoebe with me, hot in my arms, singing Ella Fitzgerald back to life as I washed the dishes, I knew what I was losing, and it ached as if she’d already gone.

Kwon’s writing is exactly my thing – precise but rich. As Will arrives at university he observes –

Spires and belfries spun up from stone citadels. Frisbees soared. Bronze statues gazed forward, frozen in heroes’ poses. Sunlit paths crossed the green, lines in a giant palm, holding students who lazed on the grass.

And at a frat party, ‘….punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals….’ – Kwon’s descriptions paint crisp pictures.

If you’re after something punchy, something you could read in one sitting, but challenging nonetheless, The Incendiaries is a great pick.

3.5/5 Impressive.

The sea hissed, stinging exposed skin. It sucked the wet earth from beneath our feet. The next morning, we had Bellinis with toast, then we lolled on the sun porch, reading from old, salt-bloated magazines.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 5): Belfast 9°-18° and Melbourne 9°-15°

11 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Gosh, there’s not a great difference between our winter and Belfast’s summer, eh? It doesn’t sound like a destination to visit in winter, that’s for sure…

  3. I have this in my TBR having picked it up super cheap in Dymocks last year. I think it was $9 or something like that… for a hardback. I may actually swap this one into my own 20 books challenge if the mood strikes me. It does sound very good.

    • I picked it for #20Books because it was relatively short 😀 For the first time ever, I failed the challenge last year (combination of lockdown blues and picking long books), so determined not to fail this year.

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