The Incendiaries is a book of careful feints – the emphases in the story never fall where you expect, but Kwon is always in total control. She writes with aphoristic concision and a disciplined sense of what to leave out. Wisely, many of the details of Jejah and Phoebe’s radicalisation are left to the reader’s imagination, though what glimpses we are afforded are grimly amusing, such as when Leal enjoins his followers to dig a giant hole in the backyard and then fill it back in again, because “nothing energises like humiliation”. By anchoring the narrative to Will, the disillusioned ex-believer, Kwon can write with a forensic but sceptical eye about the consolations of devotional ferocity – about the unburdened happiness Roger Janney believes he sees in the assembled faces of The Moonies gathered in Yankee Stadium in Mao II – without ever losing the secular reader. The Incendiaries is a startlingly assured book by an important new writer.
It is difficult to tell what this narrative conceit actually adds to the book. One effect is that it keeps the reader at an ever-increasing distance from the terrorist attack at the heart of the story that is never fully explained. This is a book that could have been much longer than its 200 pages. But Kwon is capable of both economy and flourish and can show this within a single sentence... Kwon’s is a raw talent, and what is exciting is not so much what she has achieved here but what she might do next.
This triumvirate of flawed characters share the narrative focus as events spiral towards their bloody denouement — and Kwon’s spare, scalpel-like writing makes Phoebe’s tumble into Leal’s crazed vision utterly convincing.
Big themes of religion, identity, and death swirl through the pages of The Incendiaries, but Kwon keeps her narrative grounded in the very human experiences of the young couple...Sparkling, deliberate prose weaves the three characters together. Chapters alternate perspectives between Phoebe, Will, and John Leal, charismatic and dubious in his personal objectives... The potent promises of faith and love, though, give The Incendiaries a timeless quality.
In R. O. Kwon’s radiant debut novel, “The Incendiaries,” her two central figures are the perpetrators, and victims, of the act of charm. They twist against the barbed wire of human connection in an isolating world. This is a dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism.... This unusual novel, both raw and finely wrought, leaves the reader with very few answers and little to rely on. A love triangle between a young man, a young woman and a higher purpose is torched, with few witnesses to say what happened.
terrific... a shiningly ambitious look at how human beings try to fill the holes in their lives....This is a novel of ambiguity, one in which meaning is created around absence, and in such a world, there are no easy answers.
“The Incendiaries” seeds such paradoxes in the mind of the reader. It doesn’t force them. It is full of absences and silence. Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does. It’s 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.