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Review Kwon, R.O. The Incendiaries. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2018. 224 pp. $26.00 Hardcover. The narrator of R.O. Kwon’s spare and sharp novel The Incendiaries is the studious Will Kendall, a second-year transfer student at the prestigious Edwards College in the fictional town of Noxhurst in upstate New York. Will is out of place in Edwards’ polo-shirted surroundings: he hails from a dingy San Francisco suburb, and he is attending the school on an academic scholarship. Will supplements his scholarship by waiting tables at an Italian restaurant deliberately chosen for its remove from campus. He invents a glamorous backstory for himself in the sunshine and old wealth of the Hollywood Hills to blend in with uniformly upper-class colleagues. However, Will also suffers from something deeper than class estrangement. In the early pages of the novel, Will observes an anti-abortion protest from his dormitory bedroom window. Through the haze of a hangover, he perceives the crowd marching on the expensively landscaped grounds of the university wielding Christian placards and a grotesque foam and cloth baby lofted above on poles. His response to the surreal scene is a surprise to the reader expecting a standard secular campus novel: “I watched the protest pass, sick with longing” (17). Will reveals his past as a teenage Christian evangelist, devoted and full of purpose. Having since lost his faith, he grieves it, envying those like the protesters who “still believed they were picked to be God’s children” (17). Kwon’s novel intertwines a familiar story about the self-invention of young adults on a college campus with a sensitive exploration of faith and religion. Kwon probes faith’s ability to empower its believers with a sense of belonging, purpose, and certainty; and she explores the fallout of its loss. With a cast that includes multiple Korean-American characters and a story that involves Korean-American Christianity and North Korean political prison camps, Kwon’s exploration of faith also intersects with her exploration of Korean-American identity. The Incendiaries would thus make an excellent text for a college-level Asian American literature course. Loss and grief are at the core of the novel and its characters, and they are what ultimately drive the novel’s action. Grief links Will to the novel’s second central character, Phoebe Lin, the alluring Korean-American piano prodigy at the center of the Edwards social scene. Phoebe secretly grieves the recent death of her mother for which she feels responsible; she explains that her socializing, drinking, and promiscuity are attempts to fill the void left by her mother’s loss: “I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I’d have no space left to fit my own” (68). As Will and Phoebe become romantically entangled, Will’s love for Phoebe turns desperate, seeming to

Document Type

Book Review


A book review of R.O. Kwon's 2018 debut novel, The Incendiaries.



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