History has a way of repeating itself.
About The Incarnations by Susan Barker: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.
Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.
So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue. As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…
Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.
My two centsWang's middle-aged humdrum life takes a turn when an anonymous letter is left in his taxi. It claims to be from his "soulmate" and eerily describes his movements ... and Wang's past lives. As more letters follow, each detailing Wang's incarnations, one wonders: should Wang accept this as truth, or more sensibly, chalk this up as the rantings of a lunatic stalker?
The novel alternates between Wang's life story and the letters depicting his past lives.
Snapshots of Wang's life today: A taxi driver's struggle to make ends meet. Time spent with wife Yida and daughter Echo. A strained relationship with his father and his second wife. Revelations of the impacts of the death of his biological mother on his childhood, and finally, an unravelling of family life and the revelation of Wang's relationship with a lover spurned.
Meanwhile, with each letter—told in the voice of someone very close to each incarnation—Wang's five incarnations take the reader on a journey through China's history, and Wang's present and potential future.
I was blown away by this novel. I already had high expectations from the onset because of the blurb (how many books can be compared to Midnight's Children?). I also found the author blurb fascinating since Barker is British and Malaysian-Chinese. This novel delivered on so many levels that I'm still in a bit of a daze as I write this.
Intriguing story structure
With a beginning so intriguing, I wondered vaguely where Wang's present-day story would pan out. But what really excited me was when each of the letters came around. What I initially thought would be simply alternating present-day story with incarnation story was turned on its head as the arc of this story played itself out! I found the structure surprising and unpredictable, and definitely befitting of the overall theme of reincarnation.
I loved the mysteriousness of who the letter writer is and I had my ideas about who it could be. I am sure that you'll have a hunch and make some good guesses but it won't take away from the exposition.
Tight short stories within a story, diverse characters
Each letter is a short story in itself, a vignette of a life during a particular time period in China's history. The incarnations include a woman pledged to become a Spirit Bride, a male slave during the rule of Genghis Khan, a fisherman during the Opium Wars, a concubine in The Forbidden City, and a teenage revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. These incarnations span over a thousand years! There is a lot to learn if you have just a cursory knowledge of China's history and her people.
What is particularly fascinating to me is that despite the individual stories being able to stand alone, they all play a part in the overall story arc, masterfully done!
Uh-ohsWang's incarnations had rather wretched existences and were often in oppressive circumstances. Sex and the politics of sex is a recurring theme. Oh, this can be brutal, graphic reading including sexual violence and physical abuse. There were sections of this that made me feel sick and I had to skim the overtly graphic descriptions of a castration and sadistic sex.
Verdict: A masterful story build around the theme of reincarnation, highlighting the fascinating people of and the brutal history of China. I dare not give too much information about this book as a first time reading of this truly an experience. Highly recommended.
I received and Advance Reader Copy from the publisher for honest review consideration.