A university student who blames herself for her mother’s death becomes more and more involved in a dangerous cult’s activities that begin to veer ever closer towards terrorism.
There are some big topics being tackled here, be it fanaticism, cults, the loss of faith, or the search for some greater purpose. Not one of those topics, however, is being handled with the care and precision they warrant, on the contrary, everything is just mixed together and treated in the most superficial way. The characters have no depth and no subtlety; the two protagonists, Phoebe and her boyfriend Will, are vapid and as flat as pancakes, with only tragic backgrounds to prop them up. John Leal, the cult leader, who I assume should be at least a little bit charismatic or have a presence that throws a shadow over the whole proceedings, is absent in a strange way because as soon as a chapter was not about him I forgot that he even existed. His life story feels completely implausible, and I could not believe that anyone would follow him without questioning his methods or his background.
The other big problems I have with the book are the structure and the style. The perspective shifts between Phoebe and Will, interspersed with chapters about the cult leader. While Leal’s parts are written in the third person, Phoebe’s and Will’s are in the first person. The reason for this eludes me, and it left me with nothing but irritation. On top of that, Kwon’ prose is just not for me. There are parts that are stripped down to the bone, clipped, staccato sentences that are annoying in their abruptness, and on the other hand, there are whole paragraphs that wallow in flowery metaphors that make you lose the plot. And in between, as if to make me lose my mind with frustration, there are some parts that are imaginative and clever, and that show you exactly what could have been.
As always, the most disappointing books are those that initially hold such promise, but then fail to live up to it in the extreme. The premise of this book is utterly compelling but what is built on it is a mirage that cannot sustain a gripping narrative.
CBR11 Bingo: Listicle
Included in The Atlantic’s Best Books of 2018 list.