This recent release is one that I was highly anticipating. I was pulled to it immediately after reading the title and synopsis and actually ordered it before its release date (which is not something I normally do). I’m not sure what exactly what it was that grabbed me so much, but sometimes that happens. After years of reading, I have come to just accept that and move those particular books right to the top of my TBR.
“In pain, I wanted the world to feel as I did.”
It’s a little hard to give a plot summary for this novel, as, though it has a plot, it’s a very character-centric story. You find out right away that Phoebe has fallen in with a local cult-like group and was somehow involved in a domestic terrorist bombing that killed five people. Will, who met her at college and was fascinated by her from the start, is trying to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend might have played a part, trying to reconcile the Phoebe in his mind with this one in the news/that the authorities are seeing. Simultaneously, Will himself is struggling with a personal loss of faith, which adds an extra [complicating] layer to the interactions he has with Phoebe related to her participation in this faith-based cult.
It seems like the bombing would be the culmination of the story, and though there is a definite build as we go, there is no surprise that that’s the culmination we wait for. The story itself is in how Will is looking back over his time with Phoebe, how Phoebe is looking back over her own life, to try and illustrate, for the reader, how our characters got to this point. Interspersed are snippets of thought and perspective from John Leal, the cult leader, that give a riveting glimpse into the way his explanations and justifications work. Those sections are particularly religiously philosophical, which is not usually my cup of tea. But they were very short and woven into the rest the of the story in such a way that they added to the atmosphere and upsurge of action, but didn’t overwhelm. And I found myself really appreciating their presence.
In any case, back to Phoebe and Will. This novel is about the way their relationship plays out. We already know how it ends, but how does it get there? We see how it starts. We perhaps see some writing on the wall even from the very beginning, but who can see that when they are living it? It’s only in retrospect that these indications are visible. At the same time, we can see that Will didn’t know as much about Phoebe, her life, her inner thoughts and guilts, as he thinks. So maybe it’s no wonder he didn’t see anything coming. But even as he spends time with the cult, trying to support (or just understand) her interest in the group, he can’t see what she sees. And instead of trying to find some other kind of help for her, he watches things unfold, almost like a bystander. It’s a horrifying way to watch something happen, as a reader. (Horrible in a good way, like I’m very impressed with what the author was able to create as far as atmosphere.) But it’s probably even worse for Will, looking back and wondering what he missed or where he could have made a different choice that might have prevented everything.
Altogether it was totally absorbing to read these character explorations. That sort of mesmerizing train-wreck story creation, mixed with the short sections and staccato, almost stream of conscious writing style, all combined to have me on the edge of my seat, heart rate steadily increasing, from the very beginning. I love when an author can do that. It’s even more impressive to be able to build that type of tension even when we already know how it ends! It was a really cool anticipatory style of writing. And for such a short novel, only about 200 pages, it packs an intense, deep character driven punch.
This novel addresses a topic that so many people, across history and the world, cannot get enough of. It addresses the why. Humanity cannot help it, we always want to know why. And the why behind a person’s choices to join a cult, to engage in terrorist acts, is one of the least empathize-able that most of us would be able to think of. But our inability to understand is also what makes us so morbidly attracted to trying. Kwon takes that dark allure and turns it into something special here. For Phoebe, we truly get to see how the power of guilt grabs her, how it grows out of proportion, obscures and tints everything else, twists her view of life and self, leads to vulnerability and susceptibility, and finally drives her to the point that she would rather chase a far-flung hope to remove it than attempt to address and live with it. And though that seems like a clear path, there is still nothing obvious or pinpointed about how she ends up where she does, when so many other with similar feelings do not. In that way, even though we get as much of an explanation as is possible, we are still left with an ending that is realistically, but frustratingly, unsatisfactorily inconclusive. That may throw some people off, but it’s one of the things I loved most about this book. There are no false promises, conclusions, elucidations.
After reading this, I was left feel ragged and haunted. Which perhaps sounds terrible, but was actually perfect. Anything else would have been disingenuous to the story. If you are ever in the mood for an exploration of a person’s inner thoughts, the way a person’s actions affect those closest to them, or to delve into the mysteries of the human psyche…you should give this novel a try.