The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finished reading The Incendiaries a week ago, and I still don't know how to write this review. It's haunting. Entrancing. Captivating. It's also difficult to read. Highly polarizing. I want to yell at the book that this is not how faith works. This is not what Christianity is! And yet I identify. I've asked these questions. I've thought these thoughts.
Time is fractured--the story is told in three voices, each with different starting points. They meander between present and past, through actual and imagined happenings (in the novel's world), and sometimes it's not very clear what is real, what is imagined, and what is just perceived. It's slightly unconventional, but it works. The only thing I can seriously fault it for is the lack of quotation marks a la Cormac McCarthy.
John Leal's story is told in the third person. It starts from way before, from the North Korean prison that sowed the seeds of his cultic behaviour. They're small sound-bites, little flashes of background. If they weren't there, you probably wouldn't notice, since his story also plays out in the other narratives.
Will Kendall tells his own story in the first person. His is the easiest to follow, and the voice that I identified with the most--not his entitled white male persona (I love you, you can't leave me), but his struggles with faith (Are you real, God? If you're real, why aren't you speaking to me?). His story starts with his reimagining of the Phipps building bombing, his effort to understand. Then he backtracks to the start of his relationship to Phoebe, from when they first met and pushes forward to the present, to the aftermath of the bombing, his implication in it because of his links to the cult. Will is a Nice Guy, and his relationship with Phoebe is problematic. Even though it starts off sweet, it turns obsessive, delusional and abusive. Will is remorseful after the fact, but does that ever really change anything?
Phoebe Lin's narrative is the most difficult to read. It often starts off in the third person and meanders into the first, often flitting between present and past with little notice. I cannot tell if it is someone else telling her story, or if she has multiple personalities she shifts between (she sometimes refers to herself by her Korean name, Haejin). She's drawn to the cult for what it purports to offer: a way to cleanse her soul of guilt.
The Incendiaries is raw, offering up a fractured, misguided understanding of Christianity and faith. Will yells into the void for a God he does not believe in anymore. Phoebe performs penance for the things she cannot forgive herself for. John just wants the world to burn for its sins.
It's also the love story of two people whose religious journeys are diametrically opposed: Will's faith had led to action, but ultimately left him dry and unfulfilled whilst Phoebe hopes that her actions will lead to faith in hopes of forgiveness from her guilt. It's a relationship doomed from the start, inherently incendiary.
Note: I received a digital copy of this book from Edelweiss. I was given the book with no expectation of a positive review and the review is my own.
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