"In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable." Celeste Ng,New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere
A powerful, darkly glittering novel about violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young Korean American 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 groupa secretive extremist cultfounded 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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.42(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.83(d)|
About the Author
R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.
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Excerpted from "The Incendiaries"
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What People are Saying About This
The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.
Reading Group Guide
1. Of her own beliefs, the author has said, “I grew up so freakishly Christian that my life plan was to become a missionary. I use the word ‘freak’ as a direct quotation, since that’s what I called myself, with pride: a Jesus freak. Then, in high school, I lost the faith. I can’t really overstate how painful it was — I used to think it would have been less hard to lose my parents than to lose the God I loved. . . . Rigorously agnostic though I now am, actively progressive though I strive to be, I can’t forget the God-crazed girl I once was, the fanatic who believed that life starts at conception. Who, believing this, could have prioritized the rights of unborn fetuses over those of living women.” Did reading The Incendiaries challenge your existing beliefs or make you feel more empathetic toward those with whom you might fundamentally disagree?
2. Obsessive love, obsessive faith, and the attendant consequences are driving forces throughout The Incendiaries. In what ways are these two kinds of obsessions similar? Does one feel more dangerous? How do they speak to the title itself? What does it mean to be incendiary?
3. The concept of a cult plays a major role in The Incendiaries. What attributes of Jejah, the cult in the novel, are attractive to its members? What do you think makes someone particularly susceptible to a cult’s influence?
4. Early on in the novel, Will says, about what he remembers, “It’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved. It could be grief’s narrowed vision: I’ve noticed what I’ve lacked.” Do you consider Will to be an unreliable narrator? What does it mean to be a reliable narrator?
5. Will fantasizes about Phoebe from the moment he meets her, noting, “The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. . . . [S]ometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.” Does Will’s sexualizing of Phoebe affect the way that we as readers think of Will?
6. In the opening chapters, Will says of Phoebe and her initial reluctance to reveal too much personal information, “If, at times . . . I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.” Shortly after, he prods her into calling John Leal after Leal slips Phoebe a note containing startlingly accurate details about her life. “I’ll help,” Will says. “I could see him with you.” To what extent is Will a catalyst for events in the novel? How do you construe his actions? In what ways do they foreshadow the turns Will and Phoebe’s relationship later takes?
7. Each of our three main characters is hiding something, and both Will and Phoebe are grieving something catastrophic. How does that motivate each of them? Influence their worldviews? Push them toward or away from religion? Toward or away from other people?
8. The language of The Incendiaries has been described as “savagely elegant,” “dazzlingly acrobatic,” “seductive,” “diamond-cut.” How does the prose style contribute to the overall reading experience? What might it reveal about the characters themselves?
9. Why do you think the author chose to center Jejah’s act of terrorism around an abortion clinic, a health-care clinic? Do you think the members of Jejah truly believed what they were doing was justified? Why has reproductive rights become such a flashpoint for extremists? How else do we see religious extremism on display in the United States?
10. Discuss your own religious upbringing—what beliefs were you raised with? Do you still retain them? Do you think it’s possible to bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers? What would that look like?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries deserves every bit of the attention it is getting. I was up late finishing the second half last night. This is the kind of book that teaches you how to be a better reader. It makes me want to be a better writer, a better listener, a better human being.
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.
Misplaced faith can blind anyone. Phoebe and Will meet during their first year at Edwards University. Phoebe comes from money. Will, the opposite, doing his best to keep his scholarship while working part-time. In whatever spare time he has, Will finds himself completely obsessed with Phoebe. When Phoebe is lured into a religious cult by its enigmatic leader, John Leal, Will, puts his judgement aside and joins Phoebe and this cult just to be close to her, which ultimately leads them down a path of no return. The Incendiaries is short but powerful. Beautiful but destructive. As a reader, you can’t help but sense the underlying unease that is interwoven between each page. Phoebe’s increasing passion alarms Will. Her dedication to a group she knows so little about is at once admirable and terrifying. Their love is fleeting and there is a definite sense that something horrible is about to happen. This is a dark subject but Kwon delicately dances between the dark and the light. The Incendiaries is very well-balanced and simply told. No fluffy language or extra anything but the story will stay with you after turning that last page.
This book has completely blown my mind, as is one of the best books I have read all year. Told primarily from the viewpoint of Will, who is left reeling when it becomes apparent that the once love of his life, Phoebe, has likely committed a horrific terrorist attack, Will reflects back on their time together and Phoebe's descent into a cult that he tried desperately to save her from. I don't know what to say about this book, except that you should read it. Absolutely and unequivocally read it. Understanding from the beginning that Phoebe was involved in a terrorist bombing, and then moving back through her life when she meets Will, growing up, her mothers death and slipping into a fundamentalist religious based cult, leads to this being one of the most gripping and compelling reads I have ever picked up. There is likely nothing I can say to do this book justice - truly it is unputdownable, as you see just how alluring a cult would be to someone who is so fundamentally broken as a human being. How a sense of desperation could be preyed upon and mined to use to advance someone else's psychotic agenda. How small, seemingly meaningless moments in someone's life could be so truly magnified to push them towards a fate that is too horrific to consider. Watching this story unfold from the inside is terrifying and heartbreaking, and I spent every page wishing I could save Phoebe from herself. An absolute must read this fall, and one book that will resonate with me for years to come.
When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe. R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less. In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance. Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you. “The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.