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Book review: ‘The Incendiaries’ an arresting, kinetic debut

R.O. Kwon explores what happens when people lose faith.

R.O. Kwon's debut novel is

R.O. Kwon's debut novel is "The Incendiaries." Photo Credit: Smeeta Mahanti / Riverhead

Faith is a tricky construct, its very existence resisting any attempt to question its foundation. Once it is gone, the faithless can become even more consumed with what they had, channeling their untethered grief onto new fixations.

R.O. Kwon’s arresting debut novel, “The Incendiaries,” dissects these struggles to fill the void left by the loss of faith or belief — whether related to love, family or God.

Will, a lapsed Christian, finds solace and renewal in his carefree college relationship with Phoebe. But she is weighed down with guilt over the death of her mom and falls under the sway of John Leal, a religious extremist and cult leader who claims to have done time in a North Korean prison. Now Phoebe is gone and may be responsible for a series of bombings at abortion clinics.

Chapter headings alternate from Will to Phoebe to John, but they all spring from the mind of Will as he tries to make sense of his now broken life — or as he puts it, to recapture the thing that he most wants to recapture but which is no longer available. He is talking about Phoebe, but he could also be talking about his faith.

What drives Phoebe — and connects her to John — is both more mysterious and more concrete, choices made and actions taken or not taken.

Kwon’s kinetic writing has an incredibly polished coarseness to it, with an assortment of sentence types and fragments keeping the reader off-balance and propelled forward. Her story seems to exist in a vacuum, almost devoid of branding or cultural signifiers and with little concern for specific detailed environs. And she is so good that you become enmeshed. The only way out is to keep turning the pages.

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