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Excerpt from The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Incendiaries

A Novel

by R O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon X
The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Print Excerpt

1.
Will

They'd have gathered on a rooftop in Noxhurst to watch the ­explosion. Platt Hall, I think, eleven floors up: I know his ego, and he'd have picked the tallest point he could. So often, I've imagined how they felt, waiting. With six minutes left, the slant light of dusk reddened the high old spiresof the college, the level gables of its surrounding town. They poured festive wine into big-bellied glasses. Hands shaking, they laughed. She would sit apart from this reveling group, cross-legged on the roof's west ledge. Three minutes to go, two, one.

The Phipps building fell. Smoke plumed, the breath of God. Silence followed, then the group's shouts of triumph. Wine glasses clashed together, flashing martial light. He sang the first bars of a Jejah psalm. Others soon joined in. Carillon bells chimed, distant birds blowing white, strewn, like dandelion tufts, an outsize wish. It must have been then that John Leal came to her side. In his bare feet, he closed his arm around her shoulders. She flinched, looking up at him. I can imagine how he'd have tightened his hold, telling her she'd done well, though before long, it would be time to act again, to do a little more—

But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn't even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.

2.
John Leal

Once John Leal left Noxhurst, halfway through his last term of college, he drifted until he ended up in Yanji, China. In this city, adjacent to North Korea, he began working with an activist group that smuggled Korean refugees toward asylum in Seoul. He'd found his life's work, he thought.

Instead, he was kidnapped by North Korean agents, spirited across the border, and thrown into a prison camp outside of Pyongyang. In the stories he later told the group, he said the gulag brutalities were bad enough, but at least they'd been expected. What astonished him was the allegiance his fellow inmates showed toward the lunatic despot whose policies had installed them in their cells. They'd been jailed because, oh, they'd splashed a drop of tea on his newsprint portrait. A ­neighbor claimed to have overheard them whistling a South ­Korean pop song. Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn't be to blame. At first, he assumed this was lip service, the prisoners afraid to say otherwise. But then, he thought of the refugees he'd met in Yanji, how they talked of loving the god they'd fled. They attributed the regime's troubles to anyone but the sole person in charge.

A month into John Leal's time in the gulag, prison guards held an optional foot race, the prize a framed icon of the despot. In the confusion, those who fell were trampled. One child died of a broken spine. Through howls of pain, he shouted hosannahs for his lord. They weren't lying, the poor fools. They believed in the man as one might believe in Jesus Christ. Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he'd have achieved, if he loved them—if, John Leal thought, until his idea began.

3.
Phoebe

I hoped I'd be a piano genius, Phoebe told the group, in the first Jejah confession she tried giving. She'd have sat in the circle, holding a kidskin journal. Though I'd driven Phoebe here, I was outside, going home. It's a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn't. Instead, I'll add what details I can. The full lips, spit-­polished. She licked them, tense. I'm striving to picture it: Phoebe, talking. The thin, long-fingered hands folded tight. She looked down, inhaled.

Excerpted from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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