Book Review: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon
Fiction: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon
Will Kendall loved God so much that he traveled to Beijing as a high schooler to hand out flyers inviting the Chinese to Jesus. He then went to Bible college. Something happened to his faith, though, and he left Bible college to attend a secular university on the east coast. There he meets and falls in love with Phoebe Lin, a Korean-American girl who is the life of every party but carries with her a dark secret. She was driving when her car went out of its lane and was crushed by a truck. Her mother, the only passenger in the car, was killed in the accident. This darkness within Phoebe has her searching for answers, for God, and she finds comfort and meaning in the embrace of Jejah, a small church/cult led by charismatic leader John Leal. Leal, himself half-Korean, claimed to have spent time as a missionary in China and as a prisoner for his faith in North Korea. As her need for redemption and meaning grows, her ties to Leal and to Jejah also grow–and her relationship to Will becomes both complicated and toxic to both. Without giving too much away, that is the plot direction of The Incendiaries, a 2018 novel by R.O. Kwon.
Kwon is herself a Korean-American, and like Will she also had a passionate relationship with faith when she was a young adult. Like Will, she lost her faith after a few intense years. It seems likely that this part of her life informs the vivid and powerful descriptions she gives of faith and life committed to the church. Her descriptions of the inner life, the struggles and the surrender and the excitement and the angst, all ring true. Particularly haunting are the descriptions of the inner life after faith has left, the “God-shaped hole” and the longing to rekindle a flame that no longer can access the fuel that once seemed inexhaustible.
Much of the book reflects Will’s perspective, though the perspective shifts throughout from Will to Phoebe to John Leal. Each of these narrators is flawed and damaged, and each has a story to tell that rings true to him/herself but not necessarily to each other or to the reader. John tells of the time in the gulag when he tried to save a pregnant woman who had been beaten and was losing both her baby and her life–or did he try to help a pregnant woman abort her baby and the failure resulted in both of their deaths–or was it something else entirely? Or was he even in the gulag? Not every question is answered or answerable, and just because one character believes it to be true or even “proves” that it is true does not mean that we as the readers should accept their word as, well, gospel.
Readers should be aware that there are potential triggers for sexual assault and rape. At least two scenes within the book are quite disturbing, though not particularly detailed or graphic. Still, readers, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, should proceed with caution. There are also strong passages dealing with religion and religious experience, abortion, torture, and terrorism. This book packs a lot into its relatively few pages for a novel.
Kwon’s characters are brilliant and the plot is tight. The Incendiaries is a powerful book that delves deeply into a number of sensitive subjects. For those who struggle to understand people of profound and sincere faith, and for those who cannot see the appeal of faith, Kwon does a masterful job of exploring some reasons why faith is so powerful and why people cling to it so desperately. She also does a masterful job of exploring how bereft one is when that faith becomes unsustainable. The Incendiaries absolutely does not show the ultimate outcome of passionate faith–but it does show some possible outcomes that we see far too often in our world, and neither condones nor entirely condemns any of her characters for their choices.