by Susan Barker
2015 / 374 pages
rating – 6
This is historical fiction about China and it’s quite well researched – as far as I can tell – and that’s what drew me to it. Sad to say there were only parts which maintained my interest because to get to the history you have to slog through a lot of sex and violence – to the point of gratuitous and extreme – and that’s not interesting to me.
Susan Barker is the daughter of a British father and a Chinese mother – she lives in London but writes tales about China. The Incarnations is not something I’d recommend to the average reader – it starts slow and doesn’t pick up until toward the end of Chapter 6 when I was reminded of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian, (1990) a novel which includes a lot of Chinese folktales. Gao Xinjiang won the Nobel prize in lit in 2000 in large part for that amazing work. But Barker is no Xingjian.
In The Incarnations the main plot line concerns Wang Jun, a Bejing taxi driver, married with a child, who begins, with Chapter 1, to receive some very strange letters. The letters are from someone who knows the intimacies of his life – is someone stalking him? The author of these letters calls himself Wang’s “soulmate… of a thousand years…” Yeah? – Who? It could be a dark “friend” of Wang’s named Baldy Zhang – their history seems to go back quite a long time and include some rather bizarre incidents. Or it could be someone from another world – the world of his prior lives?
The tale alternates between then the frame story of Wang Jun, the letters, and his prior lives in six different eras starting with 7th Century Tang Dynasty through the Cultural Revolution of the 20th. The historical portions are nicely researched in some ways but in other ways they are hugely fantastical – as Chinese folk tales often are.
I think I may reread this at some point – maybe I’ll get more out of it now that I know where the story is going.