Friday, July 5, 2019

The Incendiaries by RO Kwon

I decided to read this after reading an interview an online friend did with Kwon in which they barely talked about the book beyond using it as a launching pad for a discussion of her own loss of faith. I’m glad I did. It is an intense book.

There are two main characters: Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, who meet in college and fall in love. Will is a poor former evangelist who has lost his faith. Phoebe is the daughter of immigrants, from a split home and is wealthy. The action of the book comes as John Leal, a half Korean cult leader who is not entirely what he seems meet Phoebe and draws her into his orbit. The prose is good, and the story moves along well in first person narration alternately from Phoebe and Will, with third person bits from Leal’s perspective mixed in.

The book is very much of its time in that it deals head on with abortion and campus rape. I suspect that these aspects of the book, along with the fascinating cult angle are what propelled it to such popularity. They aren’t just issues, though they threaten to be. Phoebe’s journey from a fairly straightforward partier who struggles with her grades to cult member makes is tough to read in some ways, but is believable.

But what I loved about the book is how well it portrays the grief of losing faith. In the interview that made me pick up the book, Kwon said that she wanted to capture that experience. She succeeded. In Will’s words, “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation a flight from guilt, rules. But what I couldn't forget was the joy I'd known loving him.” I can personally attest that while some may experience it as only freedom, that others experience it as grief. This book captured that in a way I haven’t seen in fiction before. Will’s actions were driven by grief, but Kwon doesn’t let him off the hook; he is still culpable.

It is a bleak book in some ways. No one gets redemption. Not in a heavy handed way. Not even in a “unreliable narrator hides, but really reveals what he did way” either. I really appreciate that Kwon handled some very sensitive subject manner without being overly sensational.

Highly Recommended

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