The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon was recommended by a Literary Lady Libations reader (Shout out to Chuck!!).
Kwon’s novel follows the story of Phoebe and Will. Both are wounded and broken in their own ways. The main storyline follows Phoebe’s descent into a cult while Will painstakingly tries to be the one to bring her back.
Kwon said that it took her ten years to write this novel. I find that particularly interesting because she touches on a topic, that until recently was pretty taboo to discuss in public. Phoebe is sexually assaulted. What is even more interesting is that Kwon has the sexual assault be perpetrated by Phoebe’s boyfriend. Will rapes Phoebe.
Before people scoff and say that it is a one off and this is a work of fiction, let’s take a look at the statistics surrounding sexual violence and college students. Sexual violence in relationships is all too common. Below are a couple of statistics regarding college aged women and dating violence (taken from National Coalition Against Domestic Violence):
- 1 in 6 (16%) college women has been sexually abused in a dating relationship
- Nearly 1 in 3 (29%) college women say they have been in an abusive dating relationship.
Kwon handles sexual violence in a relationship with a nuanced look. I think that Kwon, unfortunately, captures an accurate portrayal of what happens when rape happens in a relationship. The rape just unfolds on the page and then we move on from it. It could almost be described as a foot note in the novel. However be the conclusion of the novel it’s clear that the sexual assault could be described as turning point of the novel. The ramifications of the experience appears to have set Phoebe and Will on a path they would not have travelled down otherwise.
In addition to suffering from sexual assault, Phoebe has extreme guilt for killing her mother. This guilt drove her in all aspects of her life. It was the parrot always on her shoulder that progressively began squawking louder and louder. In an effort to wash away her sins and save the babies she ended doing the opposite.
Guilt is a powerful emotion. I would consider it one of the main themes of the book. Kwon’s writes about the many forms in which guilt and show up in a persons’ life. She portrays the outsize role guilt can play on our actions and our state of mind. How Will and Phoebe deal (or don’t) with their guilt has a huge impact on the course of their lives.
Kwon gives an ending to the story. It is a very satisfactory ending. However, I couldn’t shake this book. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling in my head. How much of Will’s background did you think impacted his actions? Do you think if Will was the typical college student he would have behaved the same way? Would he have driven relentlessly towards ‘saving’ Phoebe? What played a bigger part in Phoebe’s path to the cult- her guilt or the sexual assault?
If you haven’t read it, I would recommend picking it up at your local library or indie bookstore. It is one of the better 2018 debuts I have read.