BookPage Fiction Top Pick, August 2015
Susan Barker’s daring new novel, The Incarnations, begins in 2008, just months before the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The city is grimy and polluted behind the burst of new construction. After nights spent in the dense traffic of the city’s multiple ring roads, taxi driver Wang returns home exhausted to his wife and daughter. A rare visit with his invalid father and vicious stepmother, an aging femme fatale, doesn’t add much pleasure to Wang’s already lonely existence, but things take a turn for the bizarre when an anonymous letter, tucked into the visor of his cab, assures Wang that he is the reincarnated soul mate of the sender.
Letters continue to appear, each accompanied by a story drawn from more than a thousand years of Chinese history. In each life, Wang and the sender inhabit different roles and relationships, yet every letter tells a tale similar in its depictions of betrayal, lust and obsession. With each communication, the sender grows closer, increasing Wang’s unease and memories of his unhappy childhood, his mentally ill mother and his own hospitalization for depression.
The past-life stories in The Incarnations are culled from some of the bloodiest moments in Chinese history, from the invasion of Genghis Khan to the Opium Wars and the Cultural Revolution. Barker is unsparing in her depiction of China’s political and social excesses, and the closer the stories get to the present, the harder it is to dismiss them as ancient history or folktale. The novel’s shifts from the distant past to the present are seamless, and the bittersweet twist at the book’s finale will have readers searching back through the novel for clues to the ending.
Barker has explored the world of ghosts before: Characters from both of her previous novels (Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and the Ghost) were haunted by visitors from beyond the grave—but never were the stakes so high. Barker, who grew up in East London with a British father and Chinese Malaysian mother, spent several years in China researching The Incarnations. She skillfully combines history, the supernatural and the everyday in a novel that suggests that the past is never really past, while providing a cracking good read.