cover image The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries

R.O. Kwon. Riverhead, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1389-0

Written in dazzling, spare prose, Kwon’s debut tells the fractured story of three young people looking for something to believe in while attending the prestigious Edwards University. There’s Will Kendall, a one-time “kid evangelist” who transferred from a Bible college after losing his faith in God. He soon meets—and falls in love with—Phoebe Lin, a Korean-American pianist wrestling with the death of her mother in an accident for which she blames herself. And then there’s John Leal, a charismatic cult leader and former Edwards student who claims to have been held captive in North Korea; he offers Phoebe the supposedly noble cause she craves. Will watches in horror as Phoebe joins Leal’s so-called Jejah, a circle of quasi-religious radicals that soon sinks into right-wing terrorism targeting abortion clinics. Phoebe disappears following a fatal accident involving members of her group, leaving Will to untangle Leal’s web of deceit and find out what happened to Phoebe. Kwon’s novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction (the stream-of-consciousness style, complete with leaps between characters, amplifies the subject matter). In this intriguing cult story, Kwon thoroughly explores her characters’ motivations, making for an urgent and disarming debut. (July) Correction: this review originally misspelled a character's name.