The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon, is a doomed love story between two troubled students who attend an elite American university. It opens with an explosion. The voice switches between Will, Phoebe and the snake oil salesman John Leal. Will is looking back, trying to understand why his Phoebe would get involved in a violent protest during which people died.
Will was at a bible college until he lost faith in the existence of God. He is now at university on a scholarship but has to supplement this with a job at an upmarket restaurant. He meets Phoebe at a party when she spills her drink down his trousers. Phoebe seeks distraction in the form of attention and alcohol to drown her grief following the death of her mother. Both these young people have an aching hole in their lives. John Leal has observed how humanity craves something to believe in. He is seeking power by creating a religious cult.
Will is drawn to Phoebe from the first night they meet, fantasising about how they would be together. When this happens for real he regards her as an amalgam of what she shares of her background and the ideal of his desires. Both had childhoods cloaked by intense faith, followed by loss, guilt and disappointment. They look to each other for hope, a chance of redemption, but instead find flawed individuals. When John Leal’s bait is accepted and he starts to wind Phoebe in, Will grows jealous. He wishes to save her, but for himself.
Phoebe is fond of Will and does not want to let him down as she understands others he loved have done. She also desires John Leal’s promises of deeper meaning and higher rewards. Observing her inculturation Will tries to force her hand. He behaves abominably.
In spare and powerful prose the author adds layer upon layer of reason and action fleshed out by numerous twists and shocks. The supporting characters evoke campus life and how little even close friends know of each other’s inner turmoils. Throughout the story being narrated Will is trying to understand. Yet the Phoebe he desires is an imagined one who puts him at the centre of their universe.
The varied roles of religion and the manipulations this allows are well portrayed. Little in the story is black or white. The denouement leaves much to ponder, not least that love may be as much a human construct as other beliefs.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago.