Book Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

The Phipps building fell. Smoke plumed, the breath of God. Silence followed, then the group’s shouts of triumph. Wine glasses clash together, flashing martial light. He sang the first bars of the Jejah psalm. Others joined in. Carillon bells chimed, distant birds blowing white, strewn, like dandelion tufts, and outsized wish. It must have been then that John Leal came to her side. In his bare feet, he closed his arms around her shoulders. She flinched, looking up at him. I can imagine how he’d have tightened his hold, telling her she’d done well, though before long, it would be time to act again, to do a little more-
But that’s where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I haven’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.
The Incendiaries is a highly literary examination of passion in its popular forms: romance and religion. Our three characters form a triangle of sorts- each an opposing force in their experience with and desire for love and God.
Toward the end, when I felt faith slip from me like the last remnants of a loved, radiant dream, I looked around during church services at all the believing fools, and I grieved with envying them. I used to think I valued truth more than I did the Lord, but I wasn’t so heroic. If I could have stayed, I would. It’s as though, when I tried to learn His lines by heart, I turned literal. I inked the Word in flesh; I tattooed atrial muscles. It stained the cells, His print indelible. I wasn’t hostile, Phoebe. It was longing, and I should have made that plain.
Will is a former Evangelist whose religion was born from the belief that the word of God could and would heal his mother but when that proves false he rejects all that is spiritual-that is until he meets Phoebe and she becomes his religion. His obsession for her builds in time with his desperate need to understand her impending participation in the single-minded, terroristic acts of religious fervor. This paired, raising tension highlights the all-encompassing nature of love and religion.
If I were less selfish, I’d have released hold I had on him, this lovedazed Will, more child and man. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t. He took the stairs to my suite at a full run. Bruises formed at the top of my thighs. If I went to bed after he did, Will turned toward me, still asleep. I might put my head next to his, but he clamps his hot legs around mine. He hauled me in. I try not to pull loose; still, I did it. He protested. Insistent, not quite conscious, he reached for me again. I listen to his pulse. His soft, thin hairs, dandelion strands, shifted between my lips. I breathed them in. Here’s a wish, I thought. Don’t let me go. Until Will, I drifted: he attached to me this patch of earth. He clung all night.
Phoebe is a Korean-American who loses herself after the death of her mother, something she believed to be her own fault, and having been raised to live for something as a young piano prodigy with a strict regimen, she is desperate for a cause and for redemption.
Enter John Leal, though the least explored of the characters, it is his involvement that proves the most instrumental to the plot. Founder of the religious cult Jejah, Leal spews his fanatical beliefs and ensnares the wayward Phoebe, who all but drags Will along, thus entanglement ensues.
But he was learning to be patient. His plan stood intelligible him, lucid as a vision. If asked, before the gulag, how of revelation might look, a heraldic blaze of light would have come to mind, a flap and gust of gale-force wind. His own dazzled, indisputable rip in the fabric of the usual. Instead, he had this: a plan. His chance. He lifted his face. Through linden branches, blue lozenges flashed like prizes he could reach up to have. His personal ambitions, though, no longer signified. He was thinking of mankind. In the months to come, when Phoebe asked about his first revelation, he’d explain it had arrived with a shock of recognition-yes, he’d thought. This was it. He’d been waiting. In fact, he said, to Phoebe, I felt like this when I first heard of you.
As each narrative deepens and the three stories further tangle together we are able to see the various iterations of identity and need for belonging that plagues the human spirit, no matter how unique our starting point. The Incendiaries is ultimately an exploration of the dramatic differences that exists between our fellow human beings and yet we are all still searching, desperately, for answers, for stability and often we find that in the most unusual and often unfulfilling configurations.


A review copy of this title was provided by Riverhead Books


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