It only takes a moment for anyone’s world to tip sideways, irretrievably: a flash of anger, a spur-of-the-moment turn, a life snuffed out. But no moment ever stands alone, of course; it’s just the flashpoint on a path laid down, purposefully or not, by the thousands that came before it.
R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and David Chariandy’s Brother are hardly the first novels to wrestle with the strange confluences of fate and consequence — or even the first to frame their stories through the eyes of characters whose identities lie at least partly on another continent. But they each do it with such shrewd insight and graceful economy that the result feels gratifyingly new.
Their protagonists start out from vastly different places: The Incendiaries’ Phoebe is a piano prodigy raised in the sun-dappled privilege of Los Angeles; Brother’s Francis is scraping by as a big-box worker in the grim grayscale of Toronto’s working poor. For both, the past is another country, literally — South Korea for her, Trinidad for him. But it’s Phoebe who falls first, and furthest; convinced that she’s to blame for her mother’s death, she loses herself in sex and parties at her elite East Coast college before pivoting abruptly to an extreme religious group, a sort of campus cult led by an ex-student-turned-self-styled-guru named John Leal.
Francis never had much of a net below him to begin with. His safe place was always family: his brother Michael, one year older and infinitely cooler, and his strict but loving mother, who works hard to keep them cared for even when she’s too exhausted to stand. Home is rust stains and cracked asphalt and watchful neighbors, a place where “they spoke different languages, they ate different foods, but they were all from one colony or another.” It’s also the 1980s of Mr. T and LL Cool J, and the street bona fides that come so easily to Michael are also what help doom him. Chariandy (whose previous novel was released only in Canada) traces that loss in paragraphs so clean and pared down, every sentence feels like a polished stone.
Like Brother, Kwon’s short, sharp debut really belongs to more than one person; it’s also narrated by Leal and the boy who loves Phoebe, Will Kendall. A scholarship transfer from a dead-end exurb of San Francisco, he has abruptly abandoned his born-again faith and the Bible-school education that went with it. And he can’t help but be seduced by the gin gimlets and jewel-colored polo shirts of his glamorous new classmates, “the lotus-eaters who sprawled on the lawn.”
But it’s Phoebe who is his obsession, even as her growing fundamentalism leads to a violent act she can’t take back. If Kwon’s often intoxicating prose has a fault, it’s that her characters all tend to speak in the same feverish, convoluted syntax of an M.F.A. grad. (These are smart kids, but still; Will’s an econ major.) In the end, neither book seems especially interested in definitive answers or happily-ever-afters. What they offer instead are stories that don’t try to outline or erase otherness but illuminate it, beautifully.
The Incendiaries: B+