The Incarnations by Susan Barker x2 (notes)

incarnationThe Incarnations
by Susan Barker
2014/ 374 pages
read by Timo Chen, Joy Osmanski 14h 20m
rating –
(both read and listened – 2nd time read)

I’m going again – in the first reading the sex and violence in the various incarnations totally put me off so I rated it a 6.  Others in the reading group really enjoyed it so I’m wondering what I missed.  (This was MY nomination folks – and I was embarrassed at first read.)

Epigraph – “I ask, in this boundless land, who is the master of man’s destiny?”  Mao Dedong

The interlaced frame story takes place in Beijing in the “Year of the Rat” –  2008 but the interior stories take place in various places in China at various times in it’s long history.

Characters – (this is important!)
**  Wang Jun – our occasionally 1st person protagonist:
“Taxi-driver Wang Jun. Driver ID number 394493. Thirty-one, careworn, a smoker of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. The latest in your chain of incarnations, like the others, selected by the accident of rebirth, the lottery of fate.” (page 4)

**  Yida- Wang Jun’s wife,  a massage “therapist,” young, pretty, a bit unhappy,

**  Echo – the daughter of Wang and Yida, age about 8, bright and artistic, sensitive.

**  Baldy Zhang –  Wang’s boss,  been a taxi driver since the 1980s –

**  Zeng Yan – Wang’s long time friend – now a barber – homosexual relationship

** Wang Jun’s father –  corrupt official – debauchery – tries to corrupt Wang Jun – a kind of horrendous guy

** Shuxiang – Wang’s mother / deceased –

** Lin Hong – Wang’s now aging step-mother, seductive, a throwback to the 80s and very unhappy –

The Letters which Wang finds in his taxi:
Chapter 1 –  Letter 1.  –  beautifully written narrative of Wang’s former lives and his current one –  writer doesn’t like Wang’s wife.

Chapter 2 – frame story of 2008 Bejing and Wang in his taxi and with his family

Chapter 3 – Letter 2  –  specifics about Wang’s current life and the writer’s intent – page 19:

To scatter beams of light on the darkness of your unknown past is my duty. For to have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are. To be only one-sixth alive.

Chapter 4 –  frame story – Wang with wife

Chapter 5 –  Letter  3 –  scary letters –

Chapter 6  first of stories – 

The past lives:
Chapter 6 –   Night Coming  –


Tang era emperor

Tang Dynasty – 632 AD
Emperor Jiajing  

Bitter Root  – Wang?
Sorceress Wu – mother of Coming Brother and Bitter Root
1st person  –  Shuxiang – (mother of Wang)
Coming Brother  – sister of Bitter Root,  mother of 1st person –  (Shuxiang?)

1st person “kills”  Bitter Root – Wang – she throws his stuff over the cliff and he jumps after them.

Arts.Cultural – Chang’an 

Chapter 7 –  Wang in the frame story – taxi driver, etc.

Chapter 8 – Wang’s childhood – Shuxiang

Chapter 9 –  goes to see Zeng, the barber, his lover

Chapter 10 –  maybe 10 years prior – 1998? College – troubles,  mental hospital

Chapter 11 – 2008 – family,  Echo

Chapter 12 – 4th Letter – Shuxiang?

2.   Chapter 13 –  Arise Slaves Arise! – –  
Jin Dynasty – 1213

**  Turnip –  1st person young Jurchen boy starving as the Mongols sack the city of the Jurchends –  Shuxiang?
**  Tiger – friend – Wang –


Genghis Khan receiving Jin envoys and the Qiguo Princess. Illustrations from the Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division Orientale.

Starving during Mongol take-over of Beijing – taken as hostages/slaves – redirected to Khartoum – across Gobi Desert –

They struggle across the desert –  Tiger wants to run, Turnip kills Tiger –

Chapter 14 – back to 2008

Receives The Book of Odes from his father – says it was his mother’s  – 1908 is the translation date – the original poetry was produced in about 1000 BC or prior and put together maybe 500 BC.

Chapter 15 – back to Wang’s background – in the hospital. Zeng is there – his old friend from the hospital
Shuxiang is there – as his mother –

Wang wants to cut it off with Zeng but Zeng tells him he is a eunuch who has castrated himself.  (page 164) Wang reads poetry –  Zeng overdoses  – clues that Zeng may be leaving letters,  but .. probably not –

Chapter  16 –  Wang thinks Zeng is leaving letters –  thinks he sees him in the night by his house –  finds him and threatens him –

Chapter 17 – LETTER 5  –   writer wants Wang to leave his wife

Chapter 18 –  Sixteen Concubines
Ming Dynasty – 1542
Khan Academy Humanities 

Emperor Jiaxing

I = Concubine Swallow – ( Shuxiang)
You = Concubine Bamboo –  (Wang)

Bamboo “kills” Swallow –

Chapter 19
Wang sets fire to the letter and story outside Zeng’s barber shop

Chapter 20
backstory on Wang meeting Ma Yida – age 20

Chapter 21  – 6th letter –

Chapter 22 – confrontation with Yida re letters she found

Chapter 23 –

Ah Qin and the Sea
Qing Dynasty, 1836
Canton – right before 1st Opium war
Fanqui Town

I =    young boy – a Tanka boy
You =   Englishman,   writer,

Tom kills Ah Qin

Chapter 28 –  The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutinary Girls
People’s Repbublic of China
1966  –

I –   Little Moon  Shuxiang
2.   Liya –  Wang

Chapter 29 –
Shuxiang explains all

Chapter 30
Wang and Zeng are both dead – a car crash – murder/suicide on the part of Wang

Themes are reverberate from the old stories to the new life – especially power,  gender switching,  violence, all the intense emotions of the human condition –

Animals are a regular motif –

Themes –

Power – all kinds – from taxi driver to Echo,  from the

How those without power respond –  Step mother,  Wang,