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The Incendiaries: a book review

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✂️✂️✂️✂️✂️/5 “The Incendiaries” – R. O. Kwon

“I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I’d have no space left to fit my own” – Phoebe

This book was stunning. The writing was almost lyrical in how the author, R. O. Kwon, turned even the shortest phrase into a meaningful sentence.

There was a lot of hype around the release of this book and it turned out to be well deserved. This book was 10 years in the making and after reading this article the author’s meticulous writing style made even more sense.

There were three points of view told in this book, primarily through the eyes of one narrator, Will.  Sometimes it felt as if there was no narrator; just information provided. It was an interesting approach to tell a story and it worked well. The book starts at the end of the story which can be risky if the reader doesn’t like the ending. But Kwon pulls you in with just enough detail and quickly cuts back the past.

Will is a Bible college drop out who lost his faith and transferred to an elite east coast university. He comes from a financially unstable family with a mentally ill mother and a father who left them. To keep up with his wealthy friends he lies about his own family and background while starving and subsisting on stolen apples from the school cafeteria. He secretly works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant and barely makes enough to help his mother and scrape by himself.

Phoebe is a classically trained piano prodigy who lost her mother in a car accident. Her estranged father/evangelical mega-church pastor steps in to care for her the last several months of high school until she leaves for college. She is smart with a  magnetic personality and Will falls for her after meeting at a party.

John Leal is the leader of a group, a.k.a cult. He returns to his former college town after a questionable story of being kidnapped and held in a North Korean prison. It is there that he sees unspeakable acts against other prisoners that haunt him. When he is released he undergoes a spiritual awakening of some sort which involves him no longer wearing shoes. He already sounds like a cult leader doesn’t he?

Phoebe is targeted by John as a potential member of his new group and she gets sucked in despite Will’s misgivings with religion and even deeper issues with John and his real agenda.

John has extreme views around abortion and those clinics become a target of his group. From there Phoebe and Will’s relationship is put in jeopardy as Phoebe is caught between charismatic John and her boyfriend Will. Multiple acts of violence occur and Will’s world as he knows it, falls apart.

The author does a fantastic job of telling the story while leaving bits and pieces up to the reader to think on and resolve. Most often, plots like this leave me frustrated but that was not the case here at all. For example: a protagonist makes the shift to antagonist and in the end are they all antagonists or just deeply flawed and hurting humans? I enjoyed being able to draw my own conclusions and decide for myself.

This book was a fast read but packed with the issues of religion, abortion, sexual assault, suicide, and violent extremism. It’s interesting to think about how much has changed in our world in the 10 years it took to write this book yet it still managed to be completely relevant for today.

I found the writing sharp and the unusual character development makes this book unique. Much was left up to the imagination of the reader and two-dimensional characters became three-dimensional based on personal life experiences. I found myself identifying with both Will and Phoebe. But not John… thank you very much.

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who enjoys good writing and a plot told from an interesting perspective. But please be aware of the issues that I listed above as some of it may be upsetting, especially to those who have personally experienced trauma.

This was Kwon’s debut novel and I am looking forward to reading more of her work!

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