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
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