Book Review: THE INCENDIARIES by R. O. Kwon

Will Kendall is in love with Phoebe Lin. The problem is that Phoebe is becoming ever more enmeshed in a cult: a cult that lashes out in an act of terrifying violence that Will can’t reconcile with his glamorous, aloof, perfect vision of Phoebe. The Incendiaries explores what happens when faith takes over someone’s life, leaving those who love them helplessly trapped on the other side. I loved this novel’s story and characters, but I had trouble following its timeline and stakes until the very end, when the whole thing clicks into place. I found it mostly satisfying; other readers might be disappointed. The Incendiaries is moving and thought-provoking, but I do wish it’d been just a little clearer. Its characters are trapped in a fog of confusion and regret–the reader didn’t have to be.

You can read my full review below.


The Incendiaries Cover
cover description: Colorful, bright geometric shapes.

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

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  • publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2018, paperback in 2019
  • length: 240 pages

But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.

–from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

Faith, first love, money (and lack of it), alcohol, terrorism, an elite college, suicide, a cult. The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon’s first novel, is made of heady stuff. In it, a young scholarship student who recently lost his evangelical Christian faith, Will, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful young woman with a complicated past: Phoebe.

It took me a beat too long to understand that the whole book is told from Will’s perspective, although The Incendiaries alternates between chapters labeled Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.

John Leal is a cult leader, a Christian zealot who did a terrifying stint in a North Korean prison after trying to help smuggle people out. He’s a cipher for the entirety of the novel–why go from a righteous cause, like freeing people from a dictatorship, to something as sinister as a murderous cult?

The Incendiaries plays out like a love triangle, except instead of three whole people, it’s more like one person–Will–battling his two contradictory ideals of Phoebe. In one, Phoebe is the love of his life, the first woman he has sex with, a brilliant pianist (who threw it all away because she couldn’t be perfect enough), a social butterfly.

But in the other, Phoebe is the instigator of a horrifying and deadly bombing, a nightmare from which Will cannot wake up.

In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon writes with a cold, bright intensity, like a strobe light in a dark club. The frozen images we experience are alternately sexy, bloody, predatory, bloodless. It’s an interesting and original way to tell a version of a story I’m endlessly fascinated by: what happens when people get hopelessly caught up in a group that’s bad news. (The Girls by Emma Cline, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat are just a few examples.)

The problem is that The Incendiaries is so alternately full of sharp edges and smooth surfaces that I found it impossible to ever get a proper grasp on it. I was solidly halfway through the novel before I understood what was happening; I was all the way to the end before the chronology made any kind of sense.

You also have to be willing to accept a certain amount of melodrama, which I think is mostly but not entirely effective. Will is wholly, almost religiously consumed by Phoebe, which is the point–in a nutshell, The Incendiaries is about the ways human love and religious devotion mirror each other, each one causing us to commit previously unimaginable acts–but it’s also occasionally grating.

Luckily, I thought Will, Phoebe, and John Leal are interesting enough to justify the obsessive attention Kwon pays them. But if you’re not a fan of this type of hyper-focused, character-driven literary novel, you’re likely to find it to be an awful lot of navel-gazing.

Despite all that, The Incendiaries gets better and better in my memory the farther I am from its electric final chapter. Thematically, Kwon bites off more than almost any author could conceivably chew, and transforms it into a fascinating, enigmatic, eminently memorable story. It reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoingin that way: it wasn’t not always a great experience while I was reading it, but I’m grateful to have read it anyway.

In the end, Phoebe and John Leal’s motives are no clearer to us than they are to Will. Kwon asks us to sit with that discomfort and interrogate it, like tonguing raw gums after a pulled tooth.

If sincere belief can be used to justify such terrible ends, why believe anything at all? Why take the risk of loving anyone at all?

Because, The Incendiaries seems to argue, we can’t help it. Reasons and narrative are merely justifications to be applied afterwards, turned over and over in our minds till we come up with a story we’re satisfied with.

The Incendiaries is an excellent case for writing wildly ambitious, unrealistic novels and trusting that the right readers will love and connect with them anyway. When someone tells me that they didn’t like a novel because it wasn’t realistic, that merely tells me that something more primal has failed, that the wrong fictional buttons were pushed, the wrong hormones engaged. For a truly great story, we will put all objections of realism aside, whether that story is an overt one–a novel, a movie–or the covert one we’re always telling, the one about our own lives and relationships, the one that pushes us to believe, to love, to do something. Anything.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating book. I’m not sure that it’s always successful, but it is always, always great. ★★★★☆

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I got my copy of The Incendiaries from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish new book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.