The Incendiaries is a sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Will Kendall left his California Bible college when he lost his faith. Soon after transferring to Edwards in upstate New York, he falls for Phoebe Lin at a party. Although he’s working in a restaurant to pay his way, he hides his working-class background to fit in with Phoebe and her glitzy, careless friends. Phoebe is a failed piano prodigy who can’t forgive herself: her mother died in a car Phoebe was driving. John Leal, a half-Korean alumnus, worked with refugees in China and was imprisoned in North Korea. Now he’s started a vaguely Christian movement called Jejah (Korean for “disciple”) that involves forced baptisms, intense confessions and self-flagellation. It’s no coincidence his last name rhymes with zeal.
Much of the book is filtered through Will’s perspective; even sections headed “Phoebe” and “John Leal” most often contain his second-hand recounting of Phoebe’s words, or his imagined rendering of Leal’s thoughts – bizarre and fervent. Only in a few spots is it clear that the “I” speaking is actually Phoebe. This plus a lack of speech marks makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience, but that is very much the point. Will and Phoebe’s voices and personalities start to merge until you have to shake your head for some clarity. The irony that emerges is that Phoebe is taking the opposite route to Will’s: she is drifting from faithless apathy into radical religion, drawn in by Jejah’s promise of atonement.
As in Celeste Ng’s novels, we know from the very start the climactic event that powers the whole book: the members of Jejah set off a series of bombs at abortion clinics, killing five. The mystery, then, is not so much what happened but why. In particular, we’re left to question how Phoebe could be transformed so quickly from a vapid party girl to a religious extremist willing to suffer for her beliefs.
Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word. I can see how some might find the style frustratingly oblique, but for me it was razor sharp, and the compelling religious theme was right up my street. It’s a troubling book, one that keeps tugging at your elbow. Recommended to readers of Sweetbitter and Shelter.
“This has been the cardinal fiction of my life, its ruling principle: if I work hard enough, I’ll get what I want.”
“People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.”
The Incendiaries will be published by Virago Press on September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Note: An excerpt from The Incendiaries appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (ed. Stuart Dybek), which I reviewed for Small Press Book Review. I was interested to look back and see that, at that point, her work in progress was entitled Heroics.
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews are appearing today.
In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.
For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.
Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.
Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:
Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.
Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.
Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”
The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.
There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.
In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.
There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian reviewfrom poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s TheTowers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.