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The Incendiaries

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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.

214 pages, Hardcover

First published July 31, 2018

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About the author

R.O. Kwon

9 books827 followers
R.O. Kwon’s nationally bestselling first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago/Little Brown (U.K.), and it is being translated into six languages. Named a best book of the year by over forty publications, The Incendiaries was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize.

Kwon’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Buzzfeed, NPR, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in Seoul, Kwon has lived most of her life in the United States.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,953 reviews
8 reviews18 followers
August 6, 2018
"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.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 121 books157k followers
August 4, 2018
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.

Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,602 reviews2,040 followers
March 5, 2018
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 some of Kwon's comments 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.
Profile Image for Hannah.
591 reviews1,051 followers
March 9, 2019
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 then more elaborated:


- prose
- the interesting way R. O. Kwon plays with perspective
- the subversion of tropes


- 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 my blog.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,002 reviews35.9k followers
August 6, 2018
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.

Profile Image for emma.
1,822 reviews48.2k followers
May 26, 2021
It's possible I just Don't Get It.

In fact, since the average rating of this is 3.24, maybe it's possible that we at large here on Goodreads just Don't Get It, and this book is doing something incredible that is just flying straight over our heads.

Regardless, whether that something is there or not, it is not present for me and I did not like this book.

I do not like the treatment of sexual assault. I do not like being trapped in the gross pick-me-boy head of our narrator. I do not care for any other characters or feel like I saw them enough to even dislike them. I do not like the plotlessness of this or the upsetting-ness of it.

And again. Maybe I'm not supposed to. Maybe there's a whole thing going on with all of that that I am simply too thick to even imagine.

But I do not care.

Bottom line: No thanks!


i felt a lot while reading this book, but i don't have any feelings about it.

does that make sense?

review & rating to come

currently-reading updates

it's Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, lily is reading all books by asian authors, and i will be joining in for as many buddy reads as humanly possible!
Profile Image for Sara.
209 reviews
August 4, 2018
While The Incendiaries presented an engaging story, it is bogged down by the writing. Ornate descriptions and archaic word choices detracted from the storyline. Passages like: “Now that I had time, the hours felt like a wasteland. I crossed it, back and forth. Old ambitions flopped like stranded fish.” “It could be a sign; a Daedalus thread, the implied promise of return.” “The coarse hair strewn in Phoebe’s sheets, bijou rays of gold”. Instead of enhancing the imagery, the pretentiousness of the language and the figures overshadows the story. As I reader, I felt like I was swimming through jello to try to get to the narratives.
Profile Image for Borce.
100 reviews7 followers
May 20, 2018
I’ll start by saying the version I read is an arc so maybe a lot has changed or will change in publication, but I’m a bit confused by all the glowing reviews of this book. I kept looking to the back cover re-reading the description waiting for the story I’ve been promised to occur. Finally, with about 30 pages left it happens. Sort of. The bombing happens, true, and Will does look for Phoebe, for like a day. Most of the book is spent developing Will & Phoebe’s not so amazing relationship. I’d think to myself too many times throughout reading, why is this important or will it tie in somewhere later, only for it to not. I just, ugh.
Profile Image for Emily B.
426 reviews418 followers
August 13, 2021
3.5 rounded up
Parts of this book was beautifully written and the story was interesting. However I enjoyed individual parts more than the novel as a whole.

‘I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I'd have no space left to fit my own’
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,780 reviews1,625 followers
September 7, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,510 reviews2,444 followers
February 14, 2020
Also available in German: Die Brandstifter
Why do people believe in God? This question lies at the heart of R. O. Kwon's debut novel, which dives into the psyche of two college students in turmoil. Our main narrator is Will, a former evangelical Christian, who mourns the loss of his faith (yes, he has a telling name). Coming from a humble background and trying to support his ailing mother, he has to work at a restaurant to finance his studies. At college, he falls in love with Korean-born Phoebe, a popular girl who seems to be wild and carefree - that is until he discovers the grief she is trying to cover up.

In order to find direction, Phoebe turns to John, a half-Korean college drop-out who spent time in a gulag after trying to help North Koreans escape. Slowly, John gathers a larger following and starts a bona fide cult. Will tries to stop Phoebe from getting swallowed up by the growing extremism, but when she needs him most, he betrays her in a gruesome way - and disaster unfolds...

While it is a little obvious which strings Kwon is pulling here, it still makes for an interesting narrative: We witness the major part of the story through the eyes of Will, a lapsed Christian trying to understand his own faith and the dynamics of a cult, which of course makes for an interesting perspective, and the plot twist is very unexpected. The character of Phoebe is additionally employed to venture into the field of music and faith, as well as the issue of sexism (which is then mirrored in Will).

John remains enigmatic, which is probably the point: Even the event which he cites as instigating him to start the cult is told with slightly shifting details, though it does always point to repentence gone wrong. While it becomes clear why he would act as he does, it's intriguing how Phoebe and, to a point, also Will start promoting his cause, although they initially question whether it is worthy - in this novel, the comfort of faith comes with a high price.

Kwon's language is unusual, which makes for a very particular , dry sound. This is certainly not the best book I've ever read, but it's a promising debut, and I'm curious what this author is up to next. You can listen to the pod gang and me muse about the book (in German) here.
Profile Image for Jelly.
125 reviews
August 3, 2018
For me, this was the case of a poorly written blurb inciting false expectations. Prospective readers are told that the novel's narrator Will "struggles to confront the obsession consuming [his girlfriend Phoebe], and the fundamentalism he's tried to escape." This is true. In fact, this is where the blurb should end, in my opinion. But it goes on, saying that after a bombing executed by Phoebe's religious group, "Will devotes himself to finding [his girlfriend]...seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible." This is also true. However, the importance of these events is overstated, with 90% of the novel examining Will's personal reflections on Phoebe, their relationship, and faith before the bombing even takes place. Now, there's nothing wrong with this premise; I usually don't mind a slow burn if it's written well (which "The Incendiaries" is). But the narrative is not really what readers are told to expect.

On another note: I can't remember the last time I read a novel where the unreliable narrator admits his own unreliability - something Will affirms again and again when chronicling events from other characters' points of view (Phoebe and cult leader John Leal, specifically). I like this concept, but sometimes it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the thoughts being described are actually Phoebe and John Leal's, or if Will is just superimposing his own inner chatter on their subconscious.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,032 reviews48.4k followers
August 1, 2018
“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. . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Emily.
296 reviews1,534 followers
August 3, 2018
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, and 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.

Profile Image for Blaine.
747 reviews605 followers
July 5, 2022
“You told me once I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.”
I went into The Incendiaries with high expectations. All the early buzz, everything in the book’s description, it was all in my wheelhouse. I even met the author at a book signing. I really expected to love this book, but I did not, and I’ve really tried to figure out why.

Some of my issues are tied to the marketing of The Incendiaries. While the bombing occurs at the beginning of the book, most of the rest of the book is backstory. By the time we get back to the bombing, the book is almost over. Will certainly wonders if Phoebe was responsible, but there’s no time for him to engage in an obsessive search for her as described. And all of those references in the description to North Korea? North Korea is essentially irrelevant to the story, appearing only as the place where John was allegedly imprisoned prior to starting his cult.

But I also had significant problems with the story itself. Will is the only fully developed character. We occasionally get chapters from John, but they are too brief to reveal much about him. There are also chapters from Phoebe, but they are based upon a journal found by Will, and so are essentially narrated and filtered by Will. And all of that filtering is a problem because Will is a highly unreliable narrator, so much so that we never know Phoebe’s true fate or her actual complicity in the bombing. Most importantly, the plot hinges significantly on an act by Will so completely out of character for him that I had to read it three times to make sure I had not misread it somehow.

The Incendiaries takes a big swing at big, important ideas. For me, it missed the mark. But the writing was lovely in many places. I will certainly be back for her next book even if this one left me disappointed.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
January 20, 2019
Wow. This thing started with a detonation, but the real fuse to the story is sparked when we note that of all the jubilant rooftop celebrants toasting the massive smoke, there is one who is not overjoyed. She is Phoebe, the object of our narrator's deep affection. Immediately, we want to know how she got involved with - guerillas? freedom fighters? terrorists? - and if she'll somehow get herself away from them.

Because I walked into this knowing nothing about its plot (a review compared it to something Donna Tartt would write and I was IN!), let me spare anyone reading here too much information. This is a campus novel and similar in tone to the outstanding Loner, also set at an Ivy League school and with the 'scholarship kid' attempting to fit in with the affluent club. The author nails this nicely - she went to Yale. There are similarities to Stephen Florida and The Art of Fielding, though we don't get that poor-boy-posturing in those two. To a lesser extent, Tartt's Secret History may ring a bell since we have students behaving badly, but the tone is different.

The narrator here (Will), Phoebe, and John Leal are the trinity around which the story gravitates. Each has worshipped God (or tried to) in some way, and it has threaded the three of them together in ways that aren't good. If the reading (or hearing the audio) of deep emotional yearning for lost faith makes you squirm, just hang on through those pieces of the story. If you cannot deal with the idea that falling into agnosticism or atheism hurts, just imagine grief over a lost loved one. The pain one of our character feels is entirely tangible. Powerful. These sections aren't long, but there are a few that pop up to sear the reader.

I'm a fan of books set in North Korea, and two of our key characters have ties there. What was interesting to learn is that culturally, Korean Americans have a very devout, evangelical portion of their population. The author, Kwon, grew up in that environment and that authenticity rang loud and clear. Funny, though, her real world experiences most closely mirror the caucasion character Will than either of the other two who are Korean American. Although the book is narrated by Will, we get third-person glimpses of Phoebe's viewpoints and past, along with similar snapshots of John Leal. I enjoyed the trifecta of points of view and the way author Kwon structured them in bite size sections. That delivery made it difficult to put this book down for long.

You will love Will - until he makes a horrible, horrible choice. John Leal is pure in his faith but gets leadership inspiration and the desire for adulation from Kim Jung-Un. Phoebe? She is a perfectionist who'd rather throw something precious away than accept flaws. She is hounded by guilt, has punished herself for it, but has found love with Will. Her next step is an attempt at deep faith and is tantalized toward it from a man who knows Korean evangelistic styles well.

Yes - there is a cult in the story. And bombs. Fundamentalist ideas. As you know from the explosion, this book begins with its near-ending - the alpha and omega. It will be up to the reader to see if our characters and love are resurrected. Will we hear that hallelujah?

What a fantastic debut novel! 4.5 bumped to 5
Profile Image for Dianne.
559 reviews906 followers
September 18, 2018
I don’t know how to review this book! It’s odd AF but an impressive debut nonetheless. Kwon places three characters at an elite American university and uses their stories to explore the relationships between faith, love, loss, guilt, grief and zealotry.

3.5 rounded up to a 4 for the splashy, vivid writing.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,574 followers
November 30, 2018
The Incendiaries is a sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Will Kendall left his California Bible college when he lost his faith. Soon after transferring to Edwards in upstate New York, he falls for Phoebe Lin at a party. Although he’s working in a restaurant to pay his way, he hides his working-class background to fit in with Phoebe and her glitzy, careless friends. Phoebe is a failed piano prodigy who can’t forgive herself: her mother died in a car Phoebe was driving. John Leal, a half-Korean alumnus, worked with refugees in China and was imprisoned in North Korea. Now he’s started a vaguely Christian movement called Jejah (Korean for “disciple”) that involves forced baptisms, intense confessions and self-flagellation. It’s no coincidence his last name rhymes with zeal.

Much of the book is filtered through Will’s perspective; even sections headed “Phoebe” and “John Leal” most often contain his second-hand recounting of Phoebe’s words, or his imagined rendering of Leal’s thoughts – bizarre and fervent. Only in a few spots is it clear that the “I” speaking is actually Phoebe. This plus a lack of speech marks makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience, but that is very much the point. Will and Phoebe’s voices and personalities start to merge until you have to shake your head for some clarity. The irony that emerges is that Phoebe is taking the opposite route to Will’s: she is drifting from faithless apathy into radical religion, drawn in by Jejah’s promise of atonement.

As in Celeste Ng’s novels, we know from the very start the climactic event that powers the whole book: the members of Jejah set off a series of bombs at abortion clinics, killing five. The mystery, then, is not so much what happened but why. In particular, we’re left to question how Phoebe could be transformed so quickly from a vapid party girl to a religious extremist willing to suffer for her beliefs.

Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word. I can see how some might find the style frustratingly oblique, but for me it was razor sharp, and the compelling religious theme was right up my street. It’s a troubling book, one that keeps tugging at your elbow. Recommended to readers of Sweetbitter and Shelter.

Favorite lines:
“This has been the cardinal fiction of my life, its ruling principle: if I work hard enough, I’ll get what I want.”

“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.”

Note: An excerpt from The Incendiaries appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (ed. Stuart Dybek), which I reviewed for the Small Press Book Review. I was interested to look back and see that, at that point, her work in progress was entitled Heroics.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Whispering Stories.
2,640 reviews2,559 followers
September 5, 2018
Book Reviewed by Stacey on www.whisperingstories.com

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.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,132 reviews69 followers
March 2, 2018
10 out of 5 stars. Wow wow wow are we all discovering a talent in Ms. Kwon. The book is eerie, and unsettling, but also sweet and beautiful... and you read the story from the outside... then all at once a simple narrator change grounds everything, makes it a story you or I could be part of. The genius here is the author's ability to pull you in, then push you all the way out to be an observer, or vice versa. I sympathized with Phoebe until it was time to see her from a distance, which was clever. I took notes about Will until it was time to see through his eyes, and I could. I love this book. I am hungry to read it again. I am eager for many others to read it, too.
Profile Image for Claire.
821 reviews176 followers
February 9, 2019
I expected to like more than I did, because at surface level, it ticks a lot of my favourite boxes. The Incendiaries is told in sparse, carefully crafted prose, is driven by exploration into the psyche of its characters, and asks big questions about big ideas like faith and violence. Unfortunately, all this potential was a bit unrealised for me. Although interesting at times, the pacing was uneven, and the best parts of the book arrived too late and were too brief. Kwon is undoubtedly a talented writer, with some interesting and challenging ideas.
Profile Image for Niki.
557 reviews38 followers
August 5, 2018
Bland and aimless. For a book about a fanatical religious cult, The Incendiaries is surprisingly boring. Many meandering walks and angsty, unconvincing love. The writing is ambitious, but heavy handed, and while I can appreciate the effort to create dimensional characters, they are as weak as wisps of smoke on the wind. It was the mention of North Korea in the description that drew me in, but it was disappointingly minor.
June 22, 2021
«Οι εμπρηστές» είναι ένα γραπτό
τρομοκρατικής αγάπης, πίστης, θρησκευτικού φανατισμού και ενοχών, που γίνονται εμμονικές τύψεις για θανάτους αγαπημένων προσώπων που έφυγαν βιαστικά, αβοήθητοι απο κάποια ακούσια ή εκούσια σοκαριστική αδιαφορία δολοφονίας, απο την αφοπλιστική ανωριμότητα ανθρώπων αρκούντως αφελών που αληθινά και αφόρητα τους λάτρευαν και τους μνημονεύουν κατόπιν συνεχώς σαν μοιρολόγια αναστημένης, ελπιδοφόρας λήθης, γραμμένη μέσα στα κατάστιχα της ιερής μετανοίας κάπου κοντά στη νεκρολογία της ενδόμυχης διεργασίας τους, ανάμεσα σε επινοημένες ρωγμές μνήμης και σε όνειρα που παλεύουν να ξεφύγουν απο τα δεσμά των εφιαλτικών προσεγγίσεων.

Φυσικά όλα αυτά που πραγματεύεται το συγκεκριμένο πόνημα φαίνονται αναγν��στικώς θολά σαν να γράφτηκαν με στύλο ξεραμένο απο τα τελειωμένα απομεινάρια που αφήνει το μελάνι.
Σαν να ιχνογραφήθηκαν με σπασμένο, πεθαμένο μαύρο μολύβι που πενθεί τον αργό του ξεπεσμό ,
σαν υδαρές αποχρώσεις ξεραμένων χρωμάτων πάνω στον λογοτεχνικό καμβά της αναπαράστασης,
σαν μουσικό κομμάτι παιγμένο σε πιάνο που του λείπουν κάποια σπάσμενα και βασικά πλήκτρα απολύτως απαραίτητα για να κατακλύσουν το κοινό με δραματικές μελωδίες υπέρτατης βίας, αγάπης, απώλειας, πίστης και μεγαλειώδους τέχνης.

Μοιάζει σαν μισοτελειωμένο μυθιστόρημα κάποιου ικανού συγγραφέα ο οποίος αρρώστησε βαριά απο παραλυτική αμνησία λίγο πριν του δώσει τα στοιχειωδώς βασικά χαρακτηριστικά που θα έχτιζαν χαρακτήρες, δομή, πλοκή, συμβολισμούς, τρόπο απορροφητικής γραφής και εμπρηστικές τάσεις συλλογικής και ατομικής απόπειρας.

Αρχίζει ισχυρά και σκοτεινά. Αλλάζει ανάμεσα σε πρώτο και τρίτο πρόσωπο, πραγματεύεται τις ανθρώπινες ναρκισσιστικά ματαιόδοξες απαιτήσεις εξαιρώντας τις αξιώσεις που χρειάζονται απαραίτητως για να αποδοθεί η σύγκρουση του έρωτα με τον θρησκευτικό φονταμελισμό και τις επικίνδυνες μυστικές ιστορίες που φύονται στις ψυχές των αναξιόπιστων ηρώων του οι οποίοι προσάπτουν στο παρόν το παρελθόν, το στοιχειώνουν με εμμονικές διαταραχές βιωματικής δυστυχίας και έλλειψη εμπειρικής ωρίμανσης.

Ποικιλοτρόπως και κοινότοπα - σαν να είναι όλοι οι χαρακτήρες ίδιοι - αποτυγχάνουν να ενηλικιωθούν και να ζήσουν προτιμώντας να εκμαυλίζουν ψυχές και σώματα, εθελοτυφλούν, παραπαίουν, εμπλέκονται σε προσηλυτισμούς απεγνωσμένης μετάνοιας προς μια εικονική σωτηρία, έναν εξαναγκαστικό εξαγνισμό που περισσότερο κλίνει προς την αυτοκαταστροφή παρά προς την ανακουφιστική επαφή με το θεϊκό στοιχείο συγχώρεσης και απαντοχής.

2.5 ⭐️


Καλή ανάγνωση.
Πολλούς ασπασμούς.
Profile Image for Suzzie.
908 reviews165 followers
August 9, 2018
This wasn’t a bad read at all but I had a lot of trouble getting into it, and honestly I did not find the characters very likable. The book was odd but it does stay with you after you close the finished book. I really do not know how to review this book. At a loss really.
Profile Image for Elaine Mullane || At Home in Books.
889 reviews322 followers
September 20, 2018
The Incendiaries by Korean-American author, R.O. Kwon has been called one of the most highly anticipated debuts of 2018 and rightly so.

In this small but razor sharp book, three Korean-American students' lives are intertwined while attending a university on the East Coast. Will has recently transferred from Bible College, having rejected both religion and fundamentalism, and Phoebe is a campus sweetheart still grieving the loss of her mother. Both come under the influence of John Leal, a charismatic former Edwards University student who was previously captured and released by North Korea and is now the leader of a religious extremist cult known as Jejah. What is fascinating about all three characters, is that we never really feel like we can trust them, as they are all hiding something: Will is embarrassed by his poverty; Phoebe's exuberant, popular-girl persona masks a deep grief and fierce battle with depression; and John's magnetism is highly questionable given his extreme methods of recruitment and leadership.

Will is in love - and mildly obsessed - with Phoebe. When she slips under the influence of John and his disturbing cult we really do appreciate how upsetting his predicament is. Will's situation is brilliantly portrayed, but it is his struggle with his own religious identity that captures our attention. To Will, his old faith is like something he cannot shed entirely:

“People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation,” he says, “a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing — the old, lost hope revived. I was tantalized with what John Leal said was possible: I wished him to be right.”

This is a story about religious intensity and how it functions in America. Religion can provide comfort, it can unite, and it can energise, but sometimes it can explode. This book is also a deep meditation on loss, of which Kwon is extraordinarily sympathetic. With her elegant, staccato prose, we are brought on a journey to the depths of places people can go when they are suffering from great loss; to the dark places and the extreme insecurities, where we witness the truly vulnerable side of millennial youth. We watch how these characters try to find meaning in tragedy and fill in the empty gaps in their lives.

It is also an imagination of the mind-set of a particular type of religious fanatic, and it questions notions of violence as a reaction to religious belief versus a response to a lack of belief.

The Incendiaries comes to us with a different structure; as a series of memories pieced together in the aftermath of an act of terrorism. With it's obscure narration style, we are not entirely sure who is doing the remembering and who is actually piecing together the series of events for us. In short chapters it moves from Will, to Phoebe, to John, but it appears to be Will's imagining of all three perspectives, so it is a struggle to bring the story into focus. However unsettling or disorientating this is though, Kwon does an excellent job of balancing it all, meaning we are never frustrated by the fogginess.

This is an ambiguous and masterful book. It is unique, powerful and utterly enticing, and it has arrived at a key moment in our time.

The Incendiaries is a slow burner, but when it catches fire, it's electric. It, in itself, is incendiary. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Intellectual_Thighs.
237 reviews347 followers
June 8, 2021
Μια φορά είχα σκεφτεί την εξυπνάδα ότι γεννιόμαστε σαν αυτές τις φέτες τσένταρ, νόστιμες και συμπαγείς και στην πορεία γινόμαστε ελβετικά τυριά, με τρύπες ακανόνιστου σχήματος και μεγέθους, που για το υπόλοιπο της ζωής μας παλεύουμε να μπαλώσουμε, είτε με ατομική δουλίτσα, παίρνουμε σακοράφα και δώστου μαντάρισμα με λόγια, συζητήσεις, βιβλία, ψυχολόγους είτε ψάχνοντας τρόπους να τις αγνοήσουμε ή να τις στουμπώσουμε διοχετεύοντας το μυαλό και την ελπίδα σε ανώτερους σκοπούς και πεποιθήσεις.

Πόσες ιστορίες δεν έχουμε ακούσει ανθρώπων με το χάρισμα να εντοπίζουν τις τρύπες των άλλων και να χώνονται εντός τους. Αυτός ήταν ο Τζων Λιλ. Μια αινιγματική ξυπόλυτη φιγούρα με σκοτεινό παρελθόν που μάζεψε γύρω του φοβισμένους, μπερδεμένους, πληγωμένους ακόλουθους και τους έπεισε ότι έχει την απάντηση στις ερωτήσεις τους, τη γιατρειά για τις πληγές τους. Και επειδή ο πόνος παίρνει διάφορες μορφές, εκείνος προσπάθησε να γίνει αυτό που χρειαζόταν ο καθένας τους.

Η Φοίβη κουβαλούσε την απώλεια, την ενοχή, το φόβο της αποτυχίας. Αυτή ήταν η είσοδος για τον Τζων Λιλ, χώθηκε και μεταμόρφωσε την κοινωνική και δημοφιλή φοιτήτρια σε σταυροφόρο.

Για πολλά χρόνια ο Γουίλ μιλούσε στο Θεό και η φωνή επέστρεφε από άδειους ουρανούς. Παραιτήθηκε λοιπόν απ την προσπάθεια και διοχέτευσε την ανάγκη του για πίστη και λατρεία στη Φοίβη. Μπορούσε να διακρίνει το αληθινό πρόσωπο του Τζων Λιλ, γιατί και ο ίδιος κουβαλούσε μυστικά και ψέματα. Και ήταν αποφασισμένος να γίνει ο σωτήρας της Φοίβης, αυτός που θα την απομακρύνει από τη σκληροπυρηνική σέχτα που την έπαιρνε μακριά του.

Η σωτηρία της ψυχής είναι πολύ μεγάλο πράγμα όμως, και γι αυτούς που την ψάχνουν σε μάνιουαλζ με κανόνες και θείες εντολές ανοιχτοί να τυφλωθούν από μεσάζοντες, μπορεί να έχει και εντελώς διαφορετικό δρομολόγιο και κατάληξη.

Ντεμπούτο με σαματά για την Κουόν, ένιωθα συνεχώς ότι δεν το αφήνει να απογειωθεί, σαν να βιάζεται να τα πει, σε σημεία φανέρωνε ότι μπορεί, άλλα στο μεγαλύτερο μέρος η αφήγηση ήταν φλατ. Μου θύμισε Μυστική Ιστορία της Ταρτ και Τα Κορίτσια της Κλάιν. Μου άρεσε, μα συνεχώς ένιωθα ότι θα μπορούσε να ήταν καλύτερο.

Όπως σχεδόν όλες μου οι σχέσεις.

Μετά παντρεύτηκα.

* Διαβάζοντας συνεντεύξεις της, καταλαβαίνω ότι πρέπει να ζορίστηκε πολύ να το ολοκληρώσει (σχεδόν δέκα χρόνια χρειάστηκε) όχι μόνο γιατί ήταν ίσως ο τρόπος να μεταφέρει και τη δική της προσωπική ιστορία απώλειας της πίστης αλλά γιατί ήταν και δημιουργικό ζόρι, αυτό το κράτημα και την αμφισβήτηση που έχουν κάποιοι συγγραφείς, άλλοι πάλι πορεύονται με μια συνεχή εσωτερική κατάφαση και σε ρωτάω Κουόν μου, ποιος περνάει καλύτερα, μην απαντήσεις, θα σου πω εγώ, αυτοί με την αίσθηση μεγαλείου που νιώθουν ότι γράφουν αριστουργηματικά ακόμα και τις σόπινκ λιστς τους περνάνε καλύτερα. Κάτσε εσύ και αγχώσου, δώσε δέκα χρόνια από τη ζωή σου ψάχνοντας να βρεις τις λέξεις τις σωστές ενώ γίνονται μπεστ σέλερζ ιστορίες που θα έγραφες μεθυσμένη με το ένα χέρι δεμένο. Αλλά. Έτσι θέλει η ζωή. Να σαι και κάπως ζαμανφού. Ακούς; Ακούω να λες. 나는 듣고있다 είπε και η Κουόν, παιδιά.
Profile Image for angelareadsbooks.
389 reviews69 followers
August 14, 2018
This is one of those books I wanted to love but unfortunately missed the mark for me. The concept itself was interesting enough, but I found it difficult to engage with the characters and plot development. It is possible that there were formatting issues in my advance reader copy, as I had a hard time deciphering whose point of view it was, as well as distinguishing between dialogue and narration. Hopefully those issues became more clear in the final copy of this book. I know many others did enjoy this book, so it is worth reading and deciding for yourself. Those enjoy books with a political bent would most enjoy this book.

This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,861 followers
February 13, 2022
Over the course of reading this (blessedly short) novel, I began to feel assaulted by Kwon’s stubborn insistence that she had to pack each page with ultrapoetic, pretentious language.

The central idea she’s working with — how does someone respond when a person they love gets swept up into a cult — is important and compelling, but her treatment of this idea left me frustrated and, ultimately, a bit exhausted.

Occasional isolated moments rang true here and there, but mostly, I couldn’t find myself ready to buy what Kwon was selling.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews874 followers
November 7, 2018
Both concise and disturbing, The Incendiaries may lack the depth needed to tell its story convincingly, but there's something magnetic about it nonetheless. In only 200 pages it follows Will and Phoebe who meet in college; Will has recently lost his faith in God and latches onto Phoebe as a replacement, while Phoebe blames herself for the recent death of her mother and finds herself drawn into an extremist cult.

The entire story is narrated from the perspective of Will, though chapters supposedly from the point of view of Phoebe and cult leader John Leal are also interspersed. But even through these chapters the reader remains in Will's head, as he imagines the thoughts and actions of these other two characters when their narratives diverge. Unpalatable as it is to read the thoughts of a female character through the eyes of a man, you have to trust that Kwon is employing this technique deliberately, as it does ultimately end up being a type of subversion. As Will attempts to fill in the gaps of Phoebe's story, certain limitations in his perspective become apparent, and his idealistic construction of Phoebe's character feels like a deliberate riff on similar narratives which use this device without the same awareness of it. This isn't handled seamlessly from start to finish, but I mostly appreciated what Kwon was trying to achieve with the perspective angle.

My biggest issue with this book was the way in which Phoebe and Will's characters are both distilled down to a single element (Will's loss of faith, Phoebe's guilt), and John Leal is such a nonentity that he really only exists as a plot device. Kwon is able to accomplish a surprising amount in her examination of grief and faith, but it's necessarily achieved at the expense of multifaceted characters. The writing itself is poetic and energized and I flew through this book, but for me it did fall a bit short of its potential emotional impact. But I think Kwon shows so much promise for a debut writer and I'm very curious to see what she does next.
Profile Image for Campbell Andrews.
419 reviews72 followers
August 5, 2018
Really disappointed in this one.

The story is worthwhile, the themes are even better. But it fails in almost every respect of the telling.

First-person was a mistake. Both the primary characters frequently sound like mouthpieces. And why are they telling the story in this way? The form is unimaginable; are these confessions? Who’s taking them down, God? Now there’s irony for ya...

The prose is extremely mannered, and, even, I proffer, unintelligible in places. (See what I did there?) And the diction is often ludicrous. About every other page I’d get distracted by a word I didn’t believe for a second would be used by the character.

Ms. Kwon is conscientious and insightful, and I hope she works through her griefs to hone her considerable gifts into fiction that serves both her story and the reader.
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