Blog tour: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Hello, and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. A debut novel widely agreed to be one of the most anticipated novels of 2018, it’s an honour to have been invited to participate – a huge thank you to Grace from Little, Brown for reaching out to me.
In case you haven’t heard of The Incendiaries, before I share my thoughts on the title I’m going to give you a bit of information about it:
A shocking 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.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Incendiaries, check it out on Goodreads. If you decide to buy a copy, please consider using my Amazon affiliate link: I’ll earn a few pennies from your purchase. Thank you!
So what did I think?
It’s hard to find the words to explain how I feel about The Incendiaries, because I’m very much on the fence about it. This is primarily because it reminds me a lot of The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the best books I read in 2017. I’d been hoping for a similar read from The Incendiaries, but because the majority of the story is told through Will’s viewpoint – a step removed from the Jejah cult – it didn’t have the same intense plot as Cline’s debut.
However, The Incendiaries has its own kind of intensity. The characters of Phoebe and Will are realistic because they’re flawed, both consistently performing misguided actions. Will’s love for Phoebe ultimately drives her away, while Phoebe’s guilt over the death of her mother sends her running into the arms of John Leal, the Jejah leader. While I was rooting for Phoebe to find redemption from someone other than John, it felt like a futile wish throughout the story: I won’t tell you the details, but I will say that you shouldn’t reach for The Incendiaries if you’re looking for a book with a happy ending.
I don’t often read literary fiction, and I did find R.O. Kwon’s writing style difficult to gel with at first. The speech is reported, which I’ve never been a fan of, but I know people who have a marked preference for that style so I’m sure that will come as a recommendation to a few of you! But because The Incendiaries is literary fiction the focus is on the way that the story is told rather than the events taking place, meaning that I did find my attention wavering at points throughout the novel. The blurb that I’ve featured above is taken from Goodreads, but I actually feel as though it needs to expose less of the tale: most of the events featured in the synopsis don’t take place until the last quarter of the novel. If my expectations hadn’t been so high it’s likely that I would have given The Incendiaries four stars, but unfortunately it just didn’t quite hit that mark.
For a book which is just over 200 pages, The Incendiaries squeezes as much as possible into its short length. Primarily discussing religion, obsession and grief, there’s also an exploration of first love. Although I found the ending frustrating I was impressed with R.O. Kwon’s attempt to deal with so much in such a brief novel. I’m excited to see what she produces next.
About the author:
R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and forthcoming from Virago (U.K.) in September 2018.
She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.
She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, and the Normal Mailer Writers’ Colony.
Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.
I hope you enjoyed my stop on The Incendiaries blog tour. Once again, a huge thank you to Grace for inviting me to take part – this isn’t a book I would have instantly been drawn to, but I ended up caring deeply for the compelling characters.