I was pretty sure I’d love this book, because I grew up in a cult and as an adult I’ve done some work in counter terror. The story focuses on Phoebe, a Korean-American college student who becomes enraptured by the magnetic personality of John Leal, who runs an exclusive cult. The cult members all live together in a big house, and Phoebe ends up moving in with them. Leal has ties to North Korea, which intrigues Phoebe too.
Meanwhile Will is trying to work out exactly what’s going on. He met Phoebe when they started studying at the same place – him a transfer from Bible college who’d recently lost his faith; her a confused undergrad who was secretly blaming herself for her mother’s death. The two had struck up a relationship, but it’s being severely tested by Phoebe’s increasing involvement with John Leal and his group.
One of the main reasons Will left Bible college in the first place was because it was all feeling a bit fundamentalist and cultlike. Now he’s seeing the same kind of extremist beliefs reflected in his girlfriend. But what can he do? Should he go along with it, try to understand Phoebe’s new obsession, and see whether there’s anything in it? Or should he fight it, potentially losing Phoebe in the process?
As the actions of Leal and his group become more and more dangerous, Will faces a difficult choice between the beliefs he holds and the person he loves.
Cult books are all the rage these days – The Girls was another one that met rave reviews when it came out. But, like with The Girls, when I read The Incendiaries I was left feeling a little hollow. Nothing much happened – certainly not as much as the blurb had led me to believe – and Phoebe’s descent into cultdom didn’t quite ring true. I think my own background makes me more critical of these books, and it must be hard to write about cults if you have no direct experience of them. Hmm, perhaps I should write one.
Also, Will. He wasn’t exactly a compelling character. His crisis of faith could have been spun into a really interesting storyline, plunging the depths of his personality and ending up in a kind of Kierkegaardian despair, but instead it was skirted over and then left aside.
Had The Incendiaries been twice as long and four times as deep, I think I would have enjoyed it much more. As it stands, it’s a pretty average read: quick, easy to get through, but not something that’ll shatter your illusions and give you any insights.