editor's choice



The Incendiaries, RO Kwon’s debut novel, is a restrained study of obsession, deceit, love and loss. Kwon’s characters, Will, Phoebe and John Leal, meet at an elite American university. Will and Phoebe are students there, John Leal, the arcane leader of a cult linked to North Korea who focuses his attention on recruiting Phoebe.

‘… he hailed Phoebe by name. She didn’t recognise him but figured she was to blame. They’d met. She’d forgotten. To be polite, she played along, as if she knew him, but he ignored the act. I’m John Leal, he said. You’re Phoebe. I hoped I’d run into you. I thought of how to set it up, and look, here you are … Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life.’

Will and Phoebe first cross paths in ‘a house full of strangers’, at a party that he gatecrashes. Will is immediately drawn to Phoebe, who at first seems to be the ultimate popular party girl, yet that persona masks the guilt and grief that she feels following her mother’s death. Will is also lost; a recent transfer to the college, he’s a former evangelical who’s all but devoid of faith. Their relationship seems to fill an emptiness in both of them, for a time, at least.

The appearance of John Leal and his determined pursuit of Phoebe complicate matters. As Phoebe becomes increasingly subsumed by Jejah, the extremist religious group which John leads, Will tries desperately to hold on to her. Both men want to control Phoebe for different reasons. When she disappears after bombings perpetrated by the group, Will’s obsession with Phoebe grows, his mission now not just to find her, but to understand how the woman he loves could possibly have committed such violence.

The events that culminate in the group’s domestic terrorism – the opening of the book – are told retrospectively in a series of fragments, primarily from Will’s perspective, and also through the imagined memories of Phoebe and John. With no real time or place references, their stories seem to unravel in a vacuum, contributing to the sense of displacement that pervades the book.

At just over 200 pages, this is a concise novel by modern standards, and yet every word seems carefully chosen by Kwon for maximum impact. Although beautifully conceived, The Incendiaries is an unsettling read.

I loved it.


 The Incendiaries | RO Kwon | Virago | 6 September 2018 | hardback | £14.99


Acknowledgements: Quoted text p. 12–13, 8 © RO Kwon 2018. This review is published as part of a virtual book tour. Many thanks to Grace Vincent, senior publicity manager at Little, Brown, and Virago, a publisher with a list that taught us it’s OK to be different. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Image © The Literary Shed 2018.


Also of interest:Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘; ‘The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;We should all be feminists’; ‘Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng’s rising star’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry‘; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962 trailer); An Alaskan epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).


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