Incendiaries (Kwon)

The Incendaries 
R.O. Kwon, 2018
Penguin Publishing
224 pp.

A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn't tell anyone she blames herself for her mother's recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe's Korean American family.

Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he's tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.

Named a "Most Anticipated Book of 2018" by the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, Time, Parade, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, PBS, Vulture, Buzzfeed, BookRiot, PopSugar, Refinery29, Bustle, The Millions, The Rumpus, Paste, BBC. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
R.O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.

She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States. (Adapted from the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Radiant.… A dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism.
New York Times Book Review

A sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye.… In a nation still so haunted by the divine promise, on the cusp of ever-more contentious debates about abortion and other intrinsically spiritual issues, The Incendiaries arrives at precisely the right moment.
Washington Post

Kwon is a writer of many talents, and The Incendiaries is a debut of dark, startling beauty.
San Francisco Chronicle

A stunning debut… After this impressive introduction of her work to the world, we’re excited to see where Kwon takes us in the future.
Marie Claire

Kwon’s multi-faceted narrative portrays America’s dark, radical strain, exploring the lure of fundamentalism, our ability to be manipulated, and what can happen when we’re willing to do anything for a cause.

Remarkable… Every page blooms with sensuous language and the book’s mood is otherworldly, even if its setting, a wealthy college in the Northeast, isn’t… These are characters in quiet crisis, burning, above all, to know themselves, and Kwon leads them, confidently, to an enthralling end.
Paris Review

A fairy-tale quality reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. [The Incendiaries is] the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.
New Yorker

Religion, politics, and love collide in this slim but powerful novel reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with menace and mystery lurking in every corner.

Written in dazzling, spare prose…Kwon’s novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction.… In this intriguing cult story, Kwon thoroughly explores her characters’ motivations, making for an urgent and disarming debut.
Publishers Weekly

Kwon successfully defines her characters’ depth while maintaining an air of intrigue and suspense. Throughout, she looks at the imperfections in all our lives and how our interactions may lead us down paths unbeknownst to ourselves. With a breezy yet intense style, newcomer Kwon is a writer to watch. —Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA
Library Journal

A first-time novelist explores identity, deception, and obsession…. The narrative is so slow and so superficial that the climax is anticlimactic.… Aesthetically pleasing but narratively underwhelming.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for THE INCENDIARIES ... then take off on your own:

1. At its core, The Incendiaries is about religious fervor. How does the novel portray faith, both its blessings and dangers?

2. How would you describe Will and Phoebe? What draws them together; what is it about Phoebe, especially, that attracts Will?

3. Why does the author choose Will to tell this story?

4. Both Phoebe and Will are searching for something that will bring meaning to their lives. What about their lives makes them feel empty or incomplete?

5. All three main characters, including John Leal, do not reveal the full truth about themselves. What is each hiding—and why?

6. Trace the development of John's religious faith. Kwon writes that John wasn't "just his Lord's child. He often had to be his substitute." What does she mean?

7. On his return to America, John targets Phoebe for his newly born mission. Why Phoebe? What makes her susceptible to his blandishments?

8. Why are religious cults so attractive: what do they offer, how do they drawn in new followers, and how do they keep them enthralled?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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