A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history

Chinese history

No doubt Chinese history (or, for that matter, the history of any other people) is littered with innumerable examples of depravity, violence, and betrayal. Though I’d like to think that a few good things happened, too — and I know that they did, having read some Chinese history — the novel The Incarnations takes a thousand-year tour through the bad stuff. It’s tough to find good people in these pages.

With that said, however, The Incarnations is a brilliant piece of work — consistently engrossing, suspenseful, and intricately plotted. Read this book, and you’re not likely to forget Taxi Driver Wang, the central character in this extraordinary tale of obsession. A child of privilege with a father who has enriched himself as a public official, misfortune has moved Wang to opt out of the path laid out for him by his family, drop out of the university, and settle into a job driving a shared Beijing taxicab.


The Incarnations by Susan Barker @@@@ (4 out of 5)


Wang is happily married, with a young daughter, when a mysterious letter turns up in his taxicab claiming to describe the life he had lived many centuries earlier — a life characterized by dissolution and betrayal. Letters keep coming at intervals, describing other, equally unfortunate past lives scattered through the centuries — each marking a critical turning-point in Chinese history — as Wang’s present-day life begins to deteriorate. Only at the very end of this skillfully crafted story do we learn, at last, the identity of the letters’ author. The Incarnations is a mystery of the highest order.

Heads up: this novel is full of explicit sex and gruesome violence. I guess that’s okay if you like that sort of thing. Apparently, the author does.

Susan Barker is a British novelist of mixed English and Chinese-Malaysian heritage. The Incarnations is her third novel. Barker reportedly lived in Beijing for several years to research this novel.

For further reading

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

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