Book Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon (Riverhead Books, 2018)

The Incendiaries left me with a lot of questions. Which isn’t surprising in such a taut, relatively short book. But the greatest question was: Is Will a reliable narrator?

Will Kendall tells the story of his years at Edwards College, a prestigious (fictional) university on the East Coast, full of rich kids. Will works hard to fit in but he doesn’t really. He’s a scholarship student, working as a waiter, and sending as much money as he can back home to his sick mom. He’s come to Edwards after losing his faith, a former fervent evangelical Christian. Will meets Phoebe Lin at a party and Phoebe also has a past she’s trying to escape from. Before long, Phoebe becomes entangled in a cult, Jejah, lead by a man who may or may not have spent time in a North Korean prison.

The book is narrated entirely by Will but this is easy to forget because there are many sections told from Phoebe’s perspective (as imagined or remembered by Will) and even a few from John Leal, the leader of Jejah. Will is telling us Phoebe’s story, as he believes it, and by the end of the book the reader is left to wonder if he truly knows Phoebe at all. Or what kind of man Will is, deep down.

It’s an interesting exploration of narration and relationships and how well you can actually know another person, even when you’re in love with them. There is a lot here as well about faith and belief and what it means to believe. Does faith require action? Can action precede faith or even create it? Both Will and Phoebe are searching for a greater meaning and they come to very different conclusions. I found this aspect of the novel interesting but not quite as well fleshed-out. The full meaning and appeal of Jejah is never quite clear. Perhaps because we see it only from Will’s perspective, it’s hard to understand what draws Phoebe in again and again. It was hard for me to sympathize with Will eventually because even when he professed a desire to extract Phoebe from John Leal’s circle, he does very little to actually do so.

R.O. Kwon is clearly skilled at creating believable and honest characters. She does ambiguity well and while I was left with questions, I didn’t feel frustrated. I would love to see her writing over a longer story and see how that might work.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon”

    1. Me too! It’s fun to have that steady realization of “Can I really trust this narrator? What are the clues that he’s lying?”

  1. I totally agree! I really enjoyed this despite a couple of qualms… such an impressive debut though and I’d LOVE to see Kwon do something longer!

    1. Absolutely! It felt like there was so much more that could have been explored in this novel, but I also can mostly understand why she’s stopped where she did.

  2. Interesting choice to have the narrator tell parts of the story from different perspectives – I can see why that would make his reliability feel ambiguous. I take it Kwon is of Korean heritage? Otherwise the choice of a North Korean cult leader seems a bit unexpected!

    1. Some of the characters are Korean too. It is a little random…the connection is never entirely explained; it seems more like North Korea is used because it works for a character to be imprisoned there.

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