Above photo from Story Studio Chicago
An edgy, taut, must-read, can't-put-down novel from an emerging literary star!
Most novelists are taught that it’s better to show than tell, but writers like R.O. Kwon are shattering such rules and proving that sometimes it’s Okay, even great, to show and tell. Her explosive debut novel, INCENDIARIES puts her on the literary map of cool, edgy young writers to watch. The dark and slowly simmering story about Phoebe, an Asian-American college co-ed that gets lured into a cult with ties to North Korea, is told from the perspective of the three main characters (mostly two) and changing points of view. Phoebe is a bright, attractive and gregarious young woman who has captured the heart of the introverted and pragmatic Will. Although they possess opposite personalities, and represent contrasting economic backgrounds - she upper middle class, he struggling middle class- they share an undeniable attraction.
Not long after Phoebe meets and falls for Will, they are introduced to John Leal and his “religious group” Jejah. Her bouts with grief, due to the mysterious death of her mother, make her vulnerable. His recent loss of faith makes him religiously skeptical. While Phoebe’s transition from mildly curious about the group, to fully committed is seemingly subtle to the reader, it is jarring and concerning to Will. Her participation in the group and Will’s disapproval takes it’s toll on their relationship. At the point Phoebe vanishes from Will’s life and campus, the group is linked to a series of bombings. This throws Will into a frenzied state, determined to find and save what he thought would be the love of his life.
Kwon foregoes a more traditional literary novel type prose for one that is more taut and fierce. That, coupled with a fast pace and short page count, make for a quick, captivating read.
"So, I’d Changed. It was possible. I often thought about what John Leal liked saying, that if we believe all people existed in their minds as much as we did in our own, the rest followed. To love, he said, is but to imagine well. I pulled out this thought; I held it up, in private, turning it in the light as though I’d find init prism gleam the Phoebe I could still become."
The two main characters, Phoebe and Will, are pared down, yet fully realized and engaging. By contrast, and presumably by design, John Leal, the catalyst character who drives the conflict and much of the plot, remains vague and minimal. Kwon’s characterization and style choices were risky for a debut novel, but no doubt these are risks that will pay off as a new audience discovers this fresh new voice.