The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon’s novel about a college student who joins an extremist cult, is an unsettling story that is at once rich and strange.

Set in the fictional American town of Noxhurst, it revolves around Phoebe Lin, a freshman at the prestigious Edwards University. She starts a relationship with fellow student Will Kendall, a Bible college dropout who waits tables at a restaurant called Michelangelo’s.

Phoebe, whose mother died in a car accident, feels guilty about that death. To Will’s dismay, she is drawn into Jejah, a cult headed by the charismatic John Leal.

The smooth-tongued impresario gets Phoebe and the other members to spill their hearts out to him. He orchestrates “pro-life” anti-abortion protests, which finally escalate into the bombings of five women’s health clinics providing abortions that cause fatalities.

Kwon’s debut novel is an assured piece of work, meticulously patterned and an attempt to navigate the divisions between lies and truth, reason and unknowing, faith and fanaticism.

Kwon examines the “I, I, I” of evangelical zeal, how religious fervour might be entwined with self-absorption and the ego. (Even Will’s devotion to Phoebe is marred by selfishness.)

The people who fill the ranks of Leal’s cult are not the poor and disenfranchised, but the well-educated. “Privileged childhoods, the lifelong habit of achieving: all the shared Jejah attributes others have found baffling would have helped him instil the bravado to do what God, in His slow-moving wisdom, had not.”

The Incendiaries

Korean-American Kwon, a former Catholic, has spoken about the struggle of turning away from her faith. This book seems to bear something of that tension; parts of it feel taut and curiously strained, like a bowstring pulled back.

The college campus seen through Will’s eyes is a sinister Arcadia; here’s an example of Kwon’s prose at its most unsettling: “The tall, pronged gates stood wide. I rolled my bags through the entry-way, a tunnel cored out of a thick wall, and the darkness opened into light. I was in the main quadrangle. Spires and belfries spun up from stone citadels. Frisbees soared. Bronze statues gazed forward, frozen in heroes’ poses. Sunlit paths crossed the green, lines in a giant palm, holding students who lazed on the grass. It was a lost garden, but I’d been allowed in.”

Elsewhere, the writing is rich with association, packed with wordplay and sly allusions to serpents and forbidden fruit. Even “Libich”, the apocryphal composer whose music Phoebe performs on the piano, reads like a coded message, a telling play on the German words for “love” and “I”.

Kwon has a particular fascination with light and the colour blue – and the two motifs converge in the recurring images of “blue fire” and “lazulite blue”. Is this pure fervour or an ignis fatuus, a will-o-the-wisp that will lead Phoebe to her death?

The Incendiaries is ultimately a wasteland with no deliverance, a dazzling reminder of how loss can push a person over the edge.

And at a time where far right and Islamist extremism are on the rise all over the world, Kwon’s book has obvious resonances. Chilling and scintillating, hers is an art people are moved to admire, but not, perhaps, to love. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

The Incendiaries
Author: R.O. Kwon
Publisher: Riverhead Books, contemporary fiction.