‘The In­cen­di­aries’ burns with in­ten­sity

Kwon shows 3 views of re­li­gious ex­trem­ism

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Grace Z. Li

“The In­cen­di­aries” (River­head, 224 pp., ★★★g), R.O. Kwon’s in­tense de­but novel, burns with re­li­gious ex­trem­ism. In­spired by her own fall­ing out with Catholi­cism, Kwon weaves a story of a fic­tional Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ist cult that bombs a New York abor­tion clinic on the very first page.

She fil­ters ex­trem­ist ideals through three char­ac­ters who are at the fore­front or fringes of ter­ror­ism: John Leal (the leader), Phoebe (the dis­ci­ple) and Will (the by­stander). And it’s timely in an era when emo­tional fer­vor can spur on prej­u­dice against cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties or a con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­dency.

Kwon’s first nar­ra­tor is Will, a col­lege stu­dent who once used his Chris­tian re­li­gion to cope with his mother’s ill­ness, preach­ing in the streets un­til he saw the fis­sures in his own faith. But that’s now in his past; Will no longer be­lieves he was hand-picked by God.

Will’s girl­friend, Phoebe, is at the op­po­site side of the re­li­gious spec­trum. Haunted by the death of her mother, Phoebe joins the Je­jah, a Chris­tian cult started by Leal, who dis­cov­ered the dan­ger­ous power of faith after a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in a North Korean gu­lag.

As a mem­ber of the Je­jah, Phoebe self-harms to be closer to God, par­tic­i­pates in group con­fes­sions and joins pro-life demon­stra­tions.

“The In­cen­di­aries” is pri­mar­ily char­ac­ter-driven, re­ly­ing on frag­mented mem­o­ries re­layed by Phoebe, Will and Leal lead­ing to the clinic bomb­ing. It works be­cause Kwon’s trio is un­de­ni­ably fas­ci­nat­ing. She un­packs each per­son’s mo­ti­va­tions, find­ing out how the cracks in their lives led them to fall in or out of love with re­li­gion.

But de­spite ac­knowl­edg­ing faith’s se­duc­tive power, Kwon never makes ex­cuses for the Je­jah’s ac­tions.

Some­times her im­agery is sparse, but when it hits, it strikes with lush beauty or ug­li­ness, art­fully re­veal­ing truths that Kwon’s char­ac­ters may try to deny.

For ex­am­ple, there’s no doubt that Will un­healthily ro­man­ti­cizes Phoebe. When he does, the im­agery is dreamy to the point of ob­ses­sion: “I kissed bit­ten nails that shine, in hind­sight, like quartz, spoils I pulled down from the moon,” he says.

The strength of “The In­cen­di­aries” is char­ac­ters who are pro­pelled by guilt or pos­sessed by love. Kwon’s novel is ur­gent in its time­li­ness, dizzy­ingly beau­ti­ful in its prose, and poignant in its dis­cov­ery of three char­ac­ters frac­tured by trauma, fran­ti­cally try­ing to piece to­gether their lives.

Au­thor R.O. Kwon

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