Review written by Patrick Stuart, SiCCO President
You know, everyone has a different genre they prefer. Some like books that are comfortable, tried and true . . . like snuggling under an old comforter, with an equally old dog across your feet, on a cold winter’s day when the house is empty and it’s just you and that cozy or whodunnit that’s been tempting you for yea so many weeks. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that.
And then there are books that bitch-slap you repeatedly across the face, then drag you semi-conscious into a dirty bus station restroom to do even worse. The Incarnations belongs in that category.
The story takes place in current China (Beijing) with the protagonist Wang Yu, a man in his early thirties, and his young wife and daughter. Wang is estranged from his father, an upper-level party official used to nights of binge-drinking and wanton decadence, now brought down by a stroke and trapped in a wheelchair piloted by his spiteful and much younger mistress. Wang’s mother is just a memory, having suffered a bad marriage and dying under mysterious circumstances, now only briefly appearing in her son’s thoughts. As the story unfolds, Wang also appears to have suffered in his youth, paying for his acts with various forms of abuse and imprisonment.
Wang throws away his vaunted education to become a taxi driver, and eventually starts receiving notes on his cab from an anonymous soul-mate who claims they’ve been together for centuries, reincarnated in different bodies, sexes and nationalities. The notes describe their different pairings in detail, without offering a clue as to the author. Wang first thinks it’s a joke, then slowly descends into a cycle of schizophrenia as he tries to determine the source. The growing swirl of events and physical acts culminates in an ending like a broken mirror, shattering the reflected lives of everyone involved.
The modern parts of the story are timely and strong, but the real interest is the interweaving with the historic passages of past lives. All involve acts of depravity and violence, both fascinating and disturbing in their detail. As someone with part-British, part-Chinese backgrounds, Susan Barker combines ancient and modern China with fantastical British story-telling, and I often found myself comparing this to one of several books by David Mitchell (e.g., The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Cloud Atlas). It’s a blend of Chinese history with a unique sense of magical realism, resulting in a story that’s, quite simply, difficult to put down. The Incarnations may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something that’s equal parts inventive and engrossing . . . step into that bus station restroom.