by Susan Barker
Title: The Incarnations
Author: Susan Barker
Publisher: Black Swan
Genre: Modern/ Adult Fiction, Magical Realism
Found: 2015 Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction list / The Library
Rating 4 Voodoos
Beijing, 2008, the Olympics are coming, but as taxi driver Wang circles the city’s congested streets, he feels barely alive. His daily grind is suddenly interrupted when he finds a letter in the sunshade of his cab. Someone is watching him. Someone who claims to be his soulmate and to have known him for over a thousand years.
Other letters follow, taking Wang back in time: to a spirit-bride in the Tang Dynasty; to young slaves during the Mongol invasion; to concubines plotting to kill the emperor; to a kidnapping in the Opium War; and to Red Guards during the Cultural revolution.
And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher in the shadows growing closer …
Sweeping between China past and present, THE INCARNATIONS illuminates the cyclical nature of history, and shows how man is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Popsugar Challenge #37. A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
This isn’t a happy book, and this isn’t a nice book, but it is a good book, full of history and culture. I’ve seen quite a few reviewers compare this to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and, while I haven’t read the book (I’ve only seen the film), I can see why. The idea is quite similar, that there are some souls destined to be reborn over and over again and that they will be drawn together. But the execution is very different and the message is much darker.
The Incarnations is set in various times and places in China. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about Chinese culture or history, so I’m unsure on how accurate everything is but, I did find what was included fascinating, and on more than one occasion I found myself Googling things to find out more. There is a constant throughout, which is the life of Wang Jiu, a taxi driver in Beijing 2008, just before the Olympics. Wang is a taxi driver, he’s bored of his everyday life but doesn’t realise it until he finds a random letter hidden in the visor of his taxi. This is the first of many letters that he will receive, that recount his previous lives. These lives are intertwined with another soul, who has come back to find him and enlighten him with his previous incarnations and hopefully find a way for them to be together again. Wang struggles to hold onto his present while lost in stories of, not only his previous lives but, his own past as well. With the arrival of a friend from the past, Wang begins to unravel.
This really was a dark book. Each incarnation had some form of shock factor, whether this was abuse (sexual and/or physical), manipulation, or cannibalism, and each life seemed to mimic the last. The Incarnations really makes you see the repetitive nature of our history and how, no matter how hard we try, we are likely to continue repeating the same mistakes over and over again. (Some what of a depressing thought). I think this is different to Cloud Atlas, because of its darker notes. I found Cloud Atlas to be some what hopeful. I didn’t get that at all in The Incarnations, there seemed to be no way out of the brutality and repetitiveness of Wang’s existence. In some ways it felt like the two souls were cursed to always cause each other harm.
The writing really captures everything. The detailing is so vivid and in-depth that you can imagine every little thing (whether you want to sometimes, or not). I found that this detailing helped to distinguish between the different characters because there is very little difference in the souls characters otherwise – one is always timid while the other is more outgoing. I found the later incarnations not as exciting as the first few, this may have had something to do with the realisation that each life was going to end in a tragedy of some kind and I didn’t particularly want to get to involved with them because of it. But it may also have something to do with the fact that Driver Wang’s life was beginning to pick up pass, and become more interesting and that the letters where now interrupting something that I was rather more invested in!
Overall, I liked the concept of this book but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I put this down to the fact that I found parts of this book a little distressing. I am definitely interested in finding out more about the cultural and historical aspects of China now though, because The Incarnations showed me only the smallest amount of it’s rich and vibrant background. I really didn’t realise how little I know about China, till I read this. The Incarnations is a clever and thought provoking book and Susan Barker has a wonderful writing style that I will happy dive into again (but preferable with a narrative that has slightly happier undertones).