The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

***WARNING..SPOILERS INCLUDED*****

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.

 

 

 

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Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht

Two words to describe Who is Vera Kelly? are: Slow Burn. The novel flips back and forth from Vera’s present to her past. While it is confusing at first, the reader is slowly lead through these ‘past’ chapters and begins to see how Vera ended up in her present. It seems as though the author is purposefully making the story confusing because the characters path to her present situation and occupation was not straight forward. It had a lot of a twists and turns which I found to be very engaging.

I came across Who Is Vera Kelly? on a listicle article about highly anticipated books. The only reason this caught my eye is that Vera Kelly is the name of a professor at the college I attended. I read the description and the book is a spy novel and follows Vera on her exploits in 1960s Argentina.

This gave me pause because the professor in question, quite openly, discussed her life as a spy. She was imprisoned in Central American prisons for spying. She immigrated to the United States at some point and is now a professor. My interest was peaked. Not enough to add it to my order list for the library but it was in the back of my mind. Fate brought me to the book, when it was predominantly displayed at the library in the New Books section. I was on my way to grab a book I ordered and picked it up too

Who Is Vera Kelly? was a short book. However, it had a lot of topics packed into the book: CIA, Cold War culture, American interventions, LGBT scene in the 1950s/1960s, and  student revolutionaries to name a few. While very diverse, Rosalie Knecht, tied all of these topics into her story  and characters and made them fit in seamlessly. Nothing seemed forced or cliched with the characters.

This is the second book Rosalie Knecht has written. I am very interested to talk with her about her book and what the inspirations were for the novel. If I had the chance to meet her, I would have to ask her if she knows the Vera Kelly I know. A lot of her story sounds very similar to things and situations that Vera experienced and told her students about. I can’t help but think “Did she steal Vera’s life and make it a novel?!”. Maybe or maybe not. Maybe I like this story so much because it is legitimizing the stories I heard from Vera’s students in college. It makes Knecht’s story more enjoyable because I know what she is describing in her novel isn’t so far fetched.

Longer than the usual review but I really enjoyed the book. I definitely recommend picking it up if you are interested in the Cold War and Latin American politics.