How many lifetimes does it take for two souls to truly bond? Susan Barker’s remarkable book The Incarnations is a time-bending fantasy with an unknown (and possible unreliable) narrator sweeping us down the rabbit hole of history.
The story begins, as do so many journeys in Beijing, in the back of a taxicab driven by a man whose existence is defined by 12-hour shifts and a faded registration card on his dashboard. But this driver, Driver Wang, has a past — a few of them in fact — and a mysterious stalker eager to reconnect.
These connections play out against a series of lavishly described and well-researched (allowing for a generous helping of creative license) historical backdrops which include the pleasure quarters of the Tang capital of Chang’an, the fall of the Jin capital Zhongdu, the Ming court, the Opium Wars, and the Cultural Revolution. Given the dramatic contexts for each of the incarnations, it is little wonder that the relationship between Driver Wang and the narrator is a fraught one. Just how fraught though is not revealed until much later in a semi-surprise twist ending that shouldn’t come as too much of a shock for those paying attention. Less observant readers will be flipping back though to find hidden clues while even the most perceptive will enjoy (and will likely not expect) a second twist just before the novel’s end.
Barker’s flights of historical fancy contrast with her depiction of today’s Beijing: A grey monotony shot through with the anxieties of living in modern China. There are anxious parents. Anxious spouses. Anxious lovers. Sex and status drive characters mad, while friends, family members, and neighbors filter in and out of scenes. The characters in the present-day scenes are often petty and parochial and their relationships are at varying stages of decay and dysfunction. A tawdry affair between Driver Wang and a lover from his (much more recent) past adds to the mystery surrounding Driver Wang’s stalker although it does little to make Wang an especially sympathetic character. Wang’s relationship with his wife, father, and stepmother are equally frustrating and unhealthy. In such an environment, it is hard not to wonder what the future holds for Wang’s daughter Echo — one of the few likable figures — especially as the last few pages suddenly cast this minor character in a whole new and unexpected light.
If the descriptions of time and place tend toward the florid, it is only to avoid being overshadowed by the dramatic (and often tragic) circumstances of the vignettes. Barker’s recreation of post-Mongol invasion Zhongdu (present-day Beijing) and the grinding cruelty of life under siege and slavery are well-rendered. The shocking tale of Zhu Houcong, the Jiajing Emperor [r. 1521-1567], is vividly described with just the right amount of embellishment.
Other scenes work a little less well in their historical context. A story of sorcery and eunuchs set in the Tang era reads like one of the weaker tales from Pu Songling’s collection. The Cultural Revolution plot, although important to setting up the novel’s ending and big reveal, feels like any number of similar stories, both fiction and non-fiction, of the chaos and cruelty from that time. Mind you, that’s probably the right approach when describing the era, but the familiarity makes it a little less compelling reading than some of the other past lives.
I enjoyed Susan Barker’s book. The descriptions of life in present-day Beijing are graphic and feel real to me. The historical sections are bold and outrageous but still seem sufficiently grounded, the weight of recurring tragedy perhaps sufficient to keep the stories from flying off into the rococo realms employed by most contemporary Chinese authors of historical fiction. The ending, while not entirely surprising, was still done well and the reaction of the main characters to the twist delivered a suitable emotional payoff. While a bit of a downer generally, it has, at its core a mystery which is always fun and, if nothing else, it made for stellar vacation reading. Definitely recommended reading.