Religious extremism makes debut novel 'The Incendiaries' burn with intensity
"The Incendiaries" (Riverhead, 224 pp., ★★★½ out of four), R.O. Kwon's intense debut novel, burns with religious extremism.
Inspired by her own falling out with Catholicism, Kwon weaves a story of a fictional Christian fundamentalist cult that bombs a New York abortion clinic on the very first page.
She filters extremist ideals through three characters who are at the forefront or fringes of terrorism: John Leal (the leader), Phoebe (the disciple) and Will (the bystander). And it’s timely in an era when emotional fervor can spur on prejudice against certain communities or a controversial presidency.
Kwon’s first narrator is Will, a college student who once used his Christian religion to cope with his mother’s illness, preaching in the streets until he saw the fissures in his own faith. But that's now in his past; Will no longer believes he was hand-picked by God.
Will's girlfriend, Phoebe, is at the opposite side of the religious spectrum. Haunted by the death of her mother, Phoebe joins the Jejah, a Christian cult started by Leal, who discovered the dangerous power of faith after a harrowing experience in a North Korean gulag.
As a member of the Jejah, Phoebe self-harms to be closer to God, participates in group confessions, and joins pro-life demonstrations.
"The Incendiaries" is primarily character-driven, relying on fragmented memories relayed by Phoebe, Will and Leal leading up to the clinic bombing. This works because Kwon's trio is undeniably fascinating. She unpacks each person’s motivations, finding out how the cracks in their lives led them to fall in or out of love with religion.
But despite acknowledging faith’s seductive power, Kwon never makes excuses for the Jejah’s actions.
Sometimes her imagery is sparse, but when it hits, it strikes with lush beauty or ugliness, artfully revealing truths that Kwon’s characters may try to deny.
For example, there’s no doubt that Will unhealthily romanticizes Phoebe. When he does, the imagery is dreamy to the point of obsession: “I kissed bitten nails that shine, in hindsight, like quartz, spoils I pulled down from the moon,” he says about Phoebe.
Kwon’s novel is urgent in its timeliness, dizzyingly beautiful in its prose, and poignant in its discovery of three characters fractured by trauma, frantically trying to piece back together their lives.