In the novel The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into a religious cult.
Phoebe Lin is wealthy, beloved, popular, but she’s secretly overcome by grief. She doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death.
Over the course of the book, Phoebe is is captivated by a charismatic former student who draws her into a what turns out to be a group of violent extremists.
Most of the story comes to us through Will, Phoebe’s working class boyfriend, a scholarship student who transferred from Bible college. Will has lost his faith, but as Phoebe falls under the spell of a new kind of fundamentalism, he finds himself struggling to confront what he’s worked so hard to escape.
“Everything I write is, in some way, shot through with the loss of God.”
It was clear to me when I read The Incendiaries that Kwon had an insider’s knowledge of evangelical Christian culture—which she sees with clear eyes, but no lack of love. She writes Will without a hint of cynicism. She doesn’t treat loss of faith as an inevitable part of his coming of age. She reveals it to be a source of grief.
Will says: “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.”
The Incendiaries takes faith—and lack of faith, and the longing for faith—deadly seriously.
I talked to author R.O. Kwon about her own experiences of Christian culture in the United States. She once thought she’d be a pastor. Then she lost her own faith, and she turned to books as solace. But she didn’t find much there that reflected her own experience. She says she wrote the novel she would have wanted to read as that 17-year-old girl.
I think that’s what was so remarkable to me about picking up The Incendiaries. I can’t remember a more sincere literary treatment of issues that I’ve grappled with so deeply in my own life, combining experiences of Christian fundamentalism and deep grief for a lost mother.
This is a novel about faith. But it’s also a novel about grief. The book turns on the mourning of an absent God, but also of absent mothers, fathers, friends and lovers.
- R.O. Kwon, “On Being A Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted”
- R.O. Kwon, “I Believe in Skin Care”
- Novelist R.O. Kwon on Losing her Religion, Elle Magazine
- Laura Miller, “Religious Faith Turns Monstrous…”, The New Yorker
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