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The Incarnations

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Who are you? You must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

371 pages, Hardcover

First published July 3, 2014

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About the author

Susan Barker

3 books179 followers
Susan Barker (born 1978) is a British novelist. She has an English father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother and grew up in East London. She is the author of the novel Sayonara Bar, which Time magazine called "a cocktail of astringent cultural observations, genres stirred and shaken, subplots served with a twist" and The Orientalist and the Ghost, both published by Doubleday (UK) and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday UK, July 2014) is about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and interwoven with tales from the Tang dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming dynasty, the Opium War, and the Cultural Revolution. While writing The Incarnations she spent several years living in Beijing, researching modern and imperial China.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 911 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
June 28, 2018
this book is very david mitchell-y in structure and theme, but it is somewhat less intellectually demanding than mitchell, and as the ever-astute blair points out, there isn't much of a difference between the voices of the discrete narratives. but that doesn't mean it's not an astonishingly good book on its own merits.

it's a sad, frequently brutal story of the various incarnations of two souls spanning the course of hundreds of years, with detail-rich backdrops of ancient to modern china. the stories satellite around wang - a taxi driver in beijing in 2008 with a wife named yida, a daughter named echo, and some heavy emotional baggage in his rearview (chortle). and as he will soon learn, that emotional baggage is not just restricted to this life; he has had five previous lives in which he has engaged with another entity in various ways, many of them centered around erotic entanglements, and most of them ending in betrayal and gruesome death.

although he has no memory of these lives, he begins to receive mysterious letters from the person with whom he shared these experiences, detailing the nature of their relationships through time and vowing that their paths will cross again.

the five letters chronicling their lives are standalone chapters in the novel, and had they been five stories in a larger collection, i would have thought "what excellent stories these are!," but i am so glad that barker chose to go the extra step and use them as bones to wrap a whole other story around - it is a wonderfully ambitious risk and i think it paid off. the only quibble i have is that i wish the story had been more evenly distributed. there's a lot of wang (heh) in between the past-life stories, and while his own current-life is beautifully, tragically written, i would have loved more islands of past-lives breaking up his storyline.

but that's just a minor complaint in what was a singularly enjoyable, discomfiting, immersive reading experience. if she writes a book of short stories, i will read it gladly. if she writes another novel, i will read it gladly. if she writes a poem on a bathroom wall, i will read it gladly. (edit - so i just learned she has TWO OTHER BOOKS! which i will read gladly)

i don't want to say much more, but i urge you to get your hands on this, as long as you have the stomach for some of the graphic bits and pieces.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
January 17, 2018
”In other incarnations I have explored every inch of you, with tongue and fingers and eyes. No matter how dilapidated, scarred and mutilated your body, I have always found you beautiful, for it is the soul beneath I seek.”

 photo Incarnations20dragon_zps5kcnlwqk.jpg

Wang Jun, a Beijing cab driver, starts receiving letters. They are not posted to him, but left where he will be sure to find them. They are disturbing letters because they are telling him things about himself that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t remember these revelations because what he is being told has happened to him in the past. Not the current past, but the past before he became Wang Jun.

Enlightening? Confusing? Frightening? Crazy?

None of it will make sense or be acceptable as long as he continues to resist the notion that he has been reincarnated several times. Why does this person remember and Wang remembers nothing? Who is this letter writer?

“After incarnation is when we meet. After the hand of fate has snatched up our souls and placed them in the womb to be born again, kicking and screaming into the human world. Fate throws us in the same family, the same harem, the same herd of slaves. But fate sets us against each other. Fate has us brawling, red in tooth and claw. Fate condemns us to bring about the other’s downfall. To blaze like fiery meteors as we crash into each other’s stratosphere, then incinerate to heat and dust.”

The book takes readers backwards and forwards in time as we meet these two reincarnates time and again, as whores, eunuchs, murderers, sorceresses, slaves, concubines, and pirates. Their souls always find each other, regardless of the roles they have been assigned in any given life. Sometimes they are lovers. Sometimes they kill each other. Usually, when I read a book that flips between different time periods, I start to prefer one or the other, and that never happens in this book. The hapless Wang Jun, taxidriver, is just as interesting to me as the other colorful characters from his past lives.

I just love this description from an encounter in 1836, during the Qing Dynasty:

“Slumber beast. Yellow slit of eye. Slobbering on the cobbles of Hog Lane, as though gnashed up in the jaws of the Sea Daemon and spewed out. Hairy-knuckled hand, sleep-scratching the crotch-rot between his legs. Yellow matted hair like trampled straw. He should have been set ablaze, he was so crawling with filth and disease.”

You would think he was talking about a lion or certainly some deprived and abused creature, but of course, the Chinese boy is describing a drunk white man passed out in the gutter.

There is a concubine who has suffered under the torture of Emperor Jiajing during the Ming Dynasty in 1542. ”I loosen my sash and shrug my shoulders so my robe slides to my feet. The stitches that crisscross my body are like puckered seams, holding together my patchwork of skin. ‘Do these scars count as evidence that His Majesty favours me?’” Another great example of the dangers of anyone having absolute power. It isn’t enough for Jiajing to screw the most beautiful young girls in the land, but he also has to hurt them, scar them, make them even more his property than they already are, as depositories of his vile seed.

 photo Incarnations_zpsumyfute5.jpg

A thousand year bond is impossible to break. As the past continues to collide with the present, Wang becomes more and more unstable. Shadows become paranoid delusions. Friends are a fount of suspicious suppositions. Fares are annoyances who wrap barbed wire around jangled nerves with every veiled criticism. His family is unnerved by this distorted, tortured version of the person they love. If he is all these reincarnations and a product of all these events of all these past lives,…

then who is he?

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visithttp://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Blair.
1,745 reviews4,175 followers
February 25, 2017
The Incarnations, compared in the publisher's description to the work of David Mitchell, is a weird and wonderful piece of historical/fantasy/suspense fiction unlike anything else I've read. The book opens with a letter, written to a taxi driver named Wang Jun by a person who claims to be his 'soulmate'. In this strange missive, the so-called soulmate writes of a number of 'past lives' he or she (or it) has shared with Wang, ranging across centuries of Chinese history. Wang suspects it's a prank, but the letters keep coming, and they grow more and more personal as the writer goes into further detail about the nature of these past lives (or incarnations), which range from the tale of a eunuch and a prostitute in 632 AD, to a story about teenage girls in an 'anti-capitalist' school during the Maoist 1960s. Wang's sanity hangs in the balance as the stability of his marriage is threatened by the letters' content and by his conviction that they are the work of a malicious stalker. As he tries to figure out what's going on, the reader comes to understand that the person Wang appears to be - an ordinary taxi driver, a semi-happily married man, a decent father - is not who he is; his past is much darker and more complicated. He develops a theory about the identity of the letter-writer, which the reader may be tempted to share, but is the truth really that simple?

The use of letters to tell these stories means the 'incarnations' are treated as self-contained short stories within the overarching narrative. This keeps the book constantly unpredictable and surprising while providing you with a reason to care about how and why the stories are connected. The stories are frequently violent in pretty horrible ways, including a scene of castration which I couldn't actually bear to read. There's a hell of a lot of sex (actually it's remarkable when two characters encounter each other and manage not to have sex) but also a lot of sexual violence and abuse. Relationships are frequently the product of some kind of bargain, and sex work appears to be a recurring theme, often an inevitability for young, poor women and men alike. Severe mental or physical health problems affect almost all the main characters at some point. Men are sex-obsessed, violent, horrible to their wives and abusive to their sons; women are vain, selfish, neglectful towards their children and stab each other in the back. Altogether, nobody comes off very well, although the straight men in these stories are particularly repugnant. Wang himself is often hard to sympathise with, and some of his actions are very questionable indeed. The narrative is powerful, though, with the most effective section being the one set in 1966, a shocking reminder that there are events in real, recent history more terrifying than any dystopian tale.

I understand why people might think this book is similar to some of Mitchell's work, but The Incarnations, for me, doesn't compare to Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas. The stories are all gripping and cleverly paced, but they lack any clear difference in narrative style, and it was this (in part) that made the aforementioned books so enjoyable to read. It's a good job The Incarnations is such an interesting read, as it's best devoured quickly. If I had stretched my reading of this book over a longer period of time, I imagine it would have seemed unbearably, unremittingly grim. It's a great work of fiction and very original, but not something I would want to revisit.

Not-entirely-relevant note: I know proofs are meant to be uncorrected, but I don't usually encounter more than a handful of mistakes in them; this seemed to have one on almost every page - bad/nonexistent punctuation, spelling mistakes and odd, unnatural-sounding insertion of characters' names into dialogue - and I was only able to ignore these because I was already aware it was uncorrected. Therefore I'm not knocking a star off for this, but if I'd been reading a finished copy with the same volume of errors, that would be another story.
910 reviews256 followers
January 7, 2016
I feel that this book deserves a better review than I can give it. On the one hand, it's fantastically written, intriguing, perfectly plotted and wonderfully descriptive, and the various narrative strands woven throughout make it impossible to put down. So - a brilliant book, right?

I don't actually know.

See, on the other hand, The Incarnations is also harsh, gruesome, and - ultimately - thoroughly depressing, which I am really not in the right frame of mind to be reading at the moment. I finished the book feeling rather uneasy and even a little nauseated. I couldn't call it bad for this reason, but I can't exactly say I enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Carly O'Connell.
543 reviews11 followers
October 8, 2015
When I picked up a book at BEA set in Beijing, I was very excited. As some of our readers may know, I have moved to China for a year to teach English, and I previously studied abroad in Beijing. Incarnations tells the story of a Beijing taxi driver who finds himself haunted by his past lives, receiving mysterious letters from his ‘soulmate’ detailing their past incarnations together. Having sat in the back of many a Beijing taxi and wondered about the lives of the drivers, I thought it would be interesting to read this tale of a driver’s back story. What I was not prepared for was the sheer amount of brutal violence, cruelty, and misery contained within these pages.

*Trigger Warning: rape, violence, abusive relationships

In my opinion, once a novel has reached its fifth or sixth graphically described rape scene, it has passed well beyond the point of ‘necessary to the plot’ and into the realm of ‘morbidly obsessed with humiliation and suffering.’

The concept of the plot was intriguing enough that I read to the end to figure out who the soulmate narrator was, but it was not an enjoyable read, and I definitely contemplated abandoning the books several times. Only the fact that I had nothing else to read kept me going.

Keep an eye on TheDailyGeekette.wordpress.com for my full review.
Profile Image for ❄️BooksofRadiance❄️.
602 reviews724 followers
August 28, 2018
History is coming for you.

Clever, thrilling and utterly fucked up. What an adventure this was.

A dark and twisted (seriously, TWISTED), albeit utterly enthralling reading experience that’ll take you on a wild and unnerving ride through the various dynasties of China, seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore and history.

Trigger warning for, well, every sick thing you can think of. Cannibalism, sexual assault, mutilation, torture and so much more.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,287 reviews730 followers
April 27, 2016
One of the main quibbles my professors have had with my essays thus far is how the ambition of my ideas isn't quite supported by the structure of the analysis or the analysis of the structure. I'm getting a feel for the middle ground of close enough but not too close analysis, but I'll always prefer grandiose synthesis of major thematic concepts to counting syllables in each line of prose. There's hope for those less inclined towards the theoretical though, for if the number of syllables your prose unspools through does not match some amount prescribed by the rhythm of breath and blood and sense of vocal beauty experienced by a human being, I'm less likely to love. If, however, you don't have either and even the regular business of plot and character is continually sacrificed to a present tense too enamored with its own construction to attempt engagement through other literary aspects, well. You'll get your readers judging by the average rating and top reviews of this, but the person who shoved the return date for my library copy up so that I was forced to finish it before the holidays did me more of a favor than anything else.

The much compared to Cloud Atlas got a three star from me as well, and after my Postcolonial short story class I'm beginning to think I'm not the biggest fan of smushing disjointed novels together for the sake of squeezing more out of the current market. Short stories have feelings too, okay? They don't like being suffocated in a tenuous box of connections that would really be much more appropriate for a short story cycle with all its mysterious universe potential than a reincarnation plot where every incarnation sounds the same. There's also the fact that I have too strong a background knowledge of Chinese history to enjoy the glimpses I got over the millennium and a half or so, and what may have engaged others seemed more to me like Wikipedia articles reworked enough into the "own words" concept to pass by the editors. Editor. Did someone edit this? I ask because the prose jolted me out of immersion every half paragraph with sentences that desperately needed reordering or rewording or less creative rule breaking and more realizing you need to be brilliant at the rules before you start running roughshod on them. The main plot line of the modern reincarnation was okay, but when the past started building up, oof. First incarnation in the Tang dynasty didn't last a chance against Empress, second to last set in the midst of the Cultural Revolution made me wish I was rereading Red Azalea, and the mystery in the present day middle didn't succeed in making me care much about its solution.

Reviews of this say it was dark. Yes, I got that, and after the first incarnation got bored, cause there's nothing that sours quite as rapidly as an overdose of sensationalism, however macabre. I appreciated the multiplicity of sexualities and gendered viewpoints, but it was all very surface level, all very standardized POV that happened to be male/female/het/cis and felt carefully constructed for the liberal gaze rather than immersed in writing a human being. I still have hopes for the author cause it's not like she's lacking for interesting ideas when it comes narrative structures, but it takes more than a nifty scaffold to fully engage a reader.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,509 reviews187 followers
August 21, 2018
Within the framing story of Wang Jun the taxi driver, the author tells us smaller stories, each set in a different time in China’s past, and told by an individual who says she and Wang have been encountering each other in each of these lives. Actually not just encountering each other, but playing significant, often painful parts in each others’ lives.
Wang has his own difficult life happening when the narrator begins sending him letters, describing each of these lives and their intense relationship over centuries. That these letters frighten him and destabilize him is not surprising, and the careful arrangements Wang has in his life begin unravelling.
There’s a sense of menace as the letters’ time periods (and the actions described within them) approach the present, with Wang Jun feeling paranoid and his marriage coming under tremendous strain.
And the reveal! That was great, and sad how the story resolved, with an interesting outcome for one of the characters.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,204 reviews188 followers
September 11, 2015
This book is so good, I'm afraid it has reduced me to incoherent babbling. I'll do my best to bring order to my thoughts, though, because I want EVERYONE to read it and love it as much as I do.

I also don't want to say too much about it because I think it's one of those where the less you know going in the better.

Wang is a cab driver in Beijing. He has a wife and a daughter. A strained relationship with his father and stepmother. Overall, he lives a simple, quiet life.

When he receives a strange letter claiming he is a reincarnate and has lived many lives before this one, he at first assumes it's someone's idea of a joke. The letter writer identifies him- or herself as his soul mate, saying they have lived linked lives for over a thousand years. Future letters detail each of those lives in turn, and they are lives full of violence, desire, and betrayal, set against the backdrop of a millennium of riveting Chinese history.

The letters' increasing urgency and the sender's intimate knowledge of secret details of Wang's life send him into a downward spiral of paranoia. The momentum is unstoppable because it is fed by two sources: the fascinating stories of Wang's past lives, and the obscured identity of the letter writer.

I'd seen The Incarnations compared to the work of David Mitchell, and while I loved The Bone Clocks, it was an intellectually demanding read for me, and I initially wasn't sure I was in the mood for such a challenge. However, I found that despite its rigorous structure, Barker's novel is incredibly accessible. It felt very much like a page-turner even though the prose required my focus. So don't be put off or intimidated by scholarly-sounding blurbs—this book is the perfect balance of intelligence and charisma. It's like Matt Damon, but in book form.

I have no doubt this book is destined to be one of my favorites of the year.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for Eva.
100 reviews4 followers
June 9, 2015
I bought this book because the cover promised a read similar to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The Incarnations has the same interesting ingredient: re-incarnations with a novelty in a Chinese setting.

I definitely learned something about China and this is the only positive take-away from the book and the star it deserves. The atmosphere in Mao's China was similar to the one in 1984 by Orwell and thoroughly depressing.

My problem with the book was that there was too much cruelty, the two main characters often met violent ends and there was no promise of peace. There was no hint of the evolution of the soul, no lessons learned from a reincarnation, the relationship between the two characters did not evolve. They still killed one another in many different ways.

One interesting twist was the amount of homosexual love in the book, this sets it far apart from books where the love story is between a man and a woman. It was a nice turn in the second story but it became a predictable twist for the next stories in the book.

All in all, I wouldn't recommend this book.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,038 followers
September 14, 2015
I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. I got it from the publisher through my request in Edelweiss.

I wanted to read this book because it sounded like an interesting concept. Wang is a taxi driver who starts finding letters above the visor in his cab - letters that detail stories from different eras in China, that the mysterious letter writer claims are stories of a shared past life.

The blurbs compare this to David Mitchell but I find Mitchell to be more of a literary read, with more fully developed separate stories. That isn't to knock Barker, that just isn't what she's done here. There is far more of a focus on the present day, the taxi driver, and stories of his family, his past, his childhood. Sprinkled in are these other narratives that temporarily pull the reader into different dynasties and the Communist revolution, but we always return to Wang.

From my understanding of reincarnation, it would be rare for a pairing such as is described here - two souls who follow one another throughout time. Sometimes lovers, sometimes enemies, sometimes on the periphery.
Profile Image for Bex Dawkins.
47 reviews11 followers
May 30, 2014
I can't explain to you how much I enjoyed reading this book. Easily my favourite book I've read this year so far.

Wang is middle aged and living his life as a taxi driver in Beijing when mysterious letters start to be left in his taxi. These letters are elaborate tales of Wang's previous lives from someone who claims to be his soulmate. We're invited to read these letters and become engulfed in Wang's past lives, like reading many different stories which are all tied up into one book.

Wang has lived as a eunuch, a revolutionary, a concubine, a slave... The list goes on. We delve into Chinese history and each of these stories are perfectly crafted and clearly well-researched.

I can't put this novel into a genre. It's love, it's unrequited love, it's historical fiction, it's modern fiction, it's beautifully written like great poetry, it's a mystery and it too has moments which span war, religion, philosophy, thriller, horror and comedy.

Susan Barker is a terrific writer and I urge you to read this.
Profile Image for Tara.
63 reviews9 followers
July 5, 2017
This book honestly blew me away.
It’s a spectacular narrative of a Beijing taxi driver in 2008 being shadowed by his soul mate across hundreds of years of Chinese history. Absolutely breathtaking.
The story was incredibly well written and intricately woven. The characters were vibrant and multifaceted (and often hard to sympathise with). The stories were cruel and grotesque; they were exposing and didn’t shy away from the truth. The fact that the stories had elements of historic accuracy chilled me to the bone. For me, the most horrific story was when the characters were involved in the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Profile Image for Cher.
800 reviews274 followers
March 26, 2016
3 stars - It was good.

Sweeping between China past and present, THE INCARNATIONS illuminates the cyclical nature of history, and shows how man is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Reincarnation is one of those trigger words for me, where if I see it in a synopsis I immediately want to read the book. This was a solid addition to that theme, but not as great as I had hoped.

Reads almost like a collection of linked short stories, most taking place in ancient times. Almost all of the stories include violence, normally of a sexual nature. Enjoyed the surprise ending, but still had a feeling of wanting more overall when the last page was turned. Sort of like when you order a tasty entree at a restaurant, but one that is too small in size and you're still a bit peckish when you're done. I was left feeling unsatiated by the contents (not an issue of length so much as substance).

I don't agree with the comparisons to David Mitchell. Yes, this was a strange tale with interwoven subplots and characters, but it felt more shallow and less intricate/convoluted than one of David Mitchell's works, which always take you to the deep end of the pool. Not that one style is better than the other, but they are very different from one another and will give misleading expectations to Mitchell fans.
Favorite Quote: Greed is the beating heart of our people, and morality is overruled by the worship of money. Anyone can be bought and sold.

First Sentence: Every night I wake from dreaming.
Profile Image for Linda.
460 reviews1 follower
August 21, 2018
4.5 stars

This was such a captivating journey through the histories of China as the main character, Wang, mysteriously receives letters stating that he and the letter writer are souls who have been reincarnates together in various lives for over 1000 years. Although it was grim and horrifying for much of the journey, I was fascinated by each story and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. As the journey continued, I found myself guessing and re-guessing who the letter writer could be, and it was a complete surprise to me when it was finally revealed.
Profile Image for Love Fool.
282 reviews117 followers
August 25, 2015
Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

This book was crazy. I couldn't stop reading it. The stories were insane and so clever how Susan Barker entwined history with her fiction. I will warn you that the book is very graphic, gory, and sexual. Not going to lie, I did feel a little pervy for reading it but I'm mature enough (kinda) to not fully blush.

What I didn't like was how Susan Barker makes it seem like our souls were never the same in previous lives... meaning that in one life I could be evil and like to kill while the other be a saint. I believe our souls are us, and no matter what "life" you are in you are the same.
Profile Image for Genevieve.
Author 7 books123 followers
September 27, 2015
To truly live, you must understand where you come from.

Susan Barker’s The Incarnations starts in Beijing in the summer of 2008. A letter is left in a cab driven by a nebbish, unassuming driver named Wang Jun. Wang lives a relatively quiet and ordinary life with his wife Yida and daughter Echo. The letter soon changes everything for Wang, quickly ensnaring him in messy cat and mouse game as he tries to figure out the identity of his stalker.

More letters come. The author makes a bold claim: He/she is someone who has known Wang for centuries, through past lives, and claims a duty to inform him. “To have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are.”

The novel cycles through each incarnation—Wang as a eunuch, a slave during the Mongolian invasion, a concubine during the Ming Dynasty, a Tanka fisherboy during the rise of British colonialism, and a student during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a twist though. The letter writer isn’t just writing a straight-up biography. It’s a personal history of a much different sort, more confessional than historical, and it is soon revealed that the letter writer shares a deep, complex, and very twisted bond with Wang, one that’s scarred by violence, lust, incest, and murder.

Barker writes these two lives as if they are twined souls, soul mates, but quickly strips the romanticism of that idea and makes it a raw, elemental bond—one that is filtered through a complicated amalgam of longing and rejection. It is a poisonous dance—victim/exploiter. Wang Jun’s lives are characterized by abuse, treachery, rage, jealousy—the basest, most reckless, and most damaging of human emotions. The Incarnations feels like tilt-a-whirl of these dark impulses and how they can sabotage relationships.

As Wang Jun learns about his past lives, we are also embroiled in his present. The letters disturb him to the core and seem to precipitate an unraveling in his personal life, revealing cracks and weaknesses in his relationships to his father, stepmother, wife, and daughter. We learn about Wang’s troubled past. An underachieving college dropout, son of a wealthy Communist Party official, troubled marriage, brewing, tortured conflicts about his sexuality. Wang is marred and haunted by a history of mental instability, a hateful relationship with his abusive father, and guilt over his mother’s death.

The way Barker weaves these realities together, past and present, is seamlessly done. Barker could have left this as a series of chopped-up tales, and while the novel does read sometimes like a collection of disparate exotic, rococo short stories, Barker ties everything together in the end.

The Incarnations is remarkable for its storytelling and detail. You can tell Barker did incredible research for this. As these tortuous lives unfold, we are simultaneously treated to the vast, rich scope of China’s past and present. What readers get is a compelling, imaginative romp through history. I was absolutely entranced and pulled in as I read.

Fair warning: The lives of Wang Jun are painful and heartbreaking. The many incidences of savagery and betrayal are written with unforgiving detail. The bleakness is unrelenting, though oddly never wearisome because Barker writes with such empathy for her characters. But don’t look for happy endings in any of the six lives. It’s pretty obvious that being an incarnate is more a cruel curse than a blessing. And there is never any redemption in subsequent lives, although there is always the hope. Sadly, kindness and altruism rarely pay off. Kill or be killed seems to be the moral rule in this universe. “Being born into this world is hell,” Wang Jun’s mother teaches him as a child. “You will be crushed with countless millions all your life long.”

Part of the mesmerizing snare of The Incarnations is the fundamental mystery: Who is writing the letters? Knowing his dysfunctional past, can we trust Wang and his suspicions? Is his wife right about him all along? Is it really all in his head? The truth is only revealed in the last twenty or so pages. I loved the bittersweet finale and revelation, which tied together the layers of narrative nicely and brought everything full circle. And not only do we learn the truth about Wang and the letter writer but also a third party twist that will surprise you and make your heart ache.

The Incarnations is ultimately about the heavy burdens of a past weighed down by guilt and regret, but also how knowing/acknowledging that past can be the way out. With the letters and revelations, perhaps the cycle of misery can be broken.
Profile Image for Penguin Books NZ.
92 reviews58 followers
October 2, 2014
(Marthie) It is probably way too early to start my ‘favourite books of the year’ list, but I rank The Incarnations by Susan Barker as one of my contenders. It is a truly amazing story, a brilliant feat of imagination that had me reading into the small hours.

A thousand years of Chinese history is presented to us through five incarnations, sweeping effortlessly from past to present – ranging from the Tang Dynasty up to life in modern-day Beijing. We follow the lives of two soulmates, forever bound together, fated to make their mistakes over and over again. History, the author seems to say, is a cycle – always breathing down your neck, watching you and, eventually, catching up with you.

We first encounter Wang as a taxi driver in Beijing, 2008. The descriptions of life in the city are vivid and colourful. You smell the polluted streets, you feel the despair and hopeless acceptance of the crowds coping with horrendous traffic snarls, living in grimy, broken-down apartments, scrabbling out their pitiful existence.

However, Wang is not the bland, boring man he seems. He hides a difficult and complicated past. His father, once a powerful and abusive man, shipped not only his wife, but also a troubled teenaged Wang to institutions. But the worm has turned – his father, now an aged drooling invalid, is being cared for by his vengeful stepmother who is settling the score for her past mistreatment.

Wang has always repressed his troubled past, but when letters mysteriously appear in the sunshade of his cab, his boring facade begins to crack. Paranoia sets in. He feels that he is being watched all the time. The author of the aggressive and threatening letters insists that they have known each other for over a thousand years – but surely that's impossible?

Each letter recounts the past lives of Wang and the mysterious author during different eras of Chinese history. The stories are amazing tales, detailing the horrific impact of historical events and the consequences of choices made.

The first story recounts the life of a spirit-bride during the Tang Dynasty. The soulmates then meet again as young slaves during the Mongol invasion; as concubines in the Forbidden City; as a foreign devil and a fisherboy during the Opium Wars; and, finally, as schoolgirls attending the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls during the cultural revolution.

Susan Barker manages not only to hold these dark and gruesome tales together, but weaves them into an incredibly strong story, every time bringing it closer to the present. The Incarnations is colourful, interspersed with a lovely wry sense of humour, and sparkles with great characters. We are left with the message that history indeed repeats itself, and that we never seem to learn from our past mistakes.
Profile Image for sappho_reader.
408 reviews2 followers
October 9, 2015
Many compare The Incarnations to David Mitchell which I don't think is fair to be honest. I don't like it when an author, particularly a new one, is categorized as being like another. No, this is not a David Mitchell novel. It lacks Mitchell's plot complexity but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading on its own merits. I enjoyed this more than I expected and I was captivated throughout. When considering a premise of reincarnation I assumed that the two soul mates in this book would be lovers throughout time and their reunions could be classified as good fodder for romance novels but I was completely wrong! Susan Barker uses reincarnation to highlight the brutality of one thousand years of Chinese history. The two soul mates are more adversarial than friendly and there is often betrayal, angst, and disloyalty in their stories. A lot of blood has been spilled on China throughout the ages: The Tang Dynasty, The Invasion of Genghis Khan, The Opium Wars, and The Cultural Revolution. Taxi cab driver Wang in Beijing circa 2008 was a great character. He was the glue that kept all the narratives tied together. The ending floored me! I did not see that happening. Wow.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews303 followers
September 22, 2015
The book opens with a lone writer, hunched over an ancient keyboard in a grim, concrete room typing out dreams and obsessing over Beijing taxi driver Wang Jun. They are soulmates, their lives intertwined across generations and Barker explores each of these incarnations in depth. They are grim stories with dark endings and it doesn’t look like Wang’s present incarnation is going to fare much better.

Lots of exotic oriental set pieces that read like intertwined short stories as the mystery of who the obsessed writer is slowly revealed.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
579 reviews76 followers
November 21, 2015
Dit is zonder twijfel een van mijn favoriete boeken dit jaar. Alles wordt perfect samen geweven tot één verhaal, de personages zijn realistisch en de geschiedenis wordt niet geromantiseerd. Verkrachtingen, incest, geweld, zelfmoord,... Het is misschien geen boek voor gevoelige zieltjes, maar het is af. Dikke dikke dikke aanrader.
Profile Image for Stacia.
825 reviews101 followers
March 11, 2019
Having seen a couple of comparisons to David Mitchell, I cannot say I agree with that. Yes, the storytelling goes back & forth in time, concerning souls that are destined to meet again & again, lifetime after lifetime. The style is very different from Mitchell's (Mitchell being more literary) & more depressing. While Mitchell's characters meet in different lifetimes, there's at least some love, some hope. The Incarnations has little hope & the reality for the characters is lifetime after lifetime of brutality, horror, depression, & insanity.

It's a good book, but not for the faint of heart. (Trigger warnings for about everything bad you can imagine....) I am also glad I read it quickly. If I had put it down often, I think it might have been easy to stop & not tread there again, especially during one of the many horrific incidents (often intricately described) in the novel. Maybe living through (or dying because of) horrors repeatedly is how reincarnation is supposed to go; however, as a reader, it's hard to see that there's no real improvement in the lives/fates of the intertwined characters time & time again, no lessons learned, no betterment. I did like finding out who the "current" incarnation is & the small twist at the end of the book.

Good. But hard to read.
Profile Image for Sarah.
489 reviews70 followers
December 3, 2015
3.5 stars

I'd heard The Incarnations described as being David Mitchell-esque, which may have been to Susan Barker's detriment. In no way is this even close to being a Mitchell Masterpiece, and in no way should Barker be compared to Mitchell. It does her no favours and ended up detracting from my enjoyment of the book- a bit unfair of me, I know.

I also think that I read The Incarnations at a bad time - I just wasn't in the mood for an incredibly dark, abusive book. After wading through the fifth or sixth scene of rape and sexual abuse, I almost gave up. It was unenjoyable. However, my OCD coupled with the detailed snapshots of different periods of Chinese history encouraged me to keep on reading. Barker is a skilled researcher, and her talents lie in making the past come to life. I dont know much about Chinese history, bar what I can remember from university Asian History classes, so it was fascinating to read about the cultural and societal backdrops to the lives of Wang. The writing in The Incarnations (once divorced from the idea of Mitchell) was vivid and beautiful.

However, at its core, this is a book of depressing human suffering - how many scenes of abuse do you need to make a point? I'm glad I read this, but I'm also very glad to be done.
Profile Image for Amy.
390 reviews41 followers
March 15, 2016
The Incarnations begins with Driver Wang, a taxi driver in Beijing being stalked by someone claiming to know him and his family and leaving "stories" for him. Even though Wang reports this to the police, they tell him there is nothing they can do and so Wang continues to worry for his wife and young daughter.

Each "story" or incarnation is told throughout the book and in chronological order, beginning with the Tang Dynasty, AD 632 and ending in 1966 with The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls. The stories are often depressing with plenty of violence and abuse. No wonder Wang was worried.

The thing that kept me reading was Wang's personal story and to find out what would happen to his sweet daughter Echo, who is worried about someone she calls The Watcher. The ending is, you guessed it, depressing, but brings the story full circle.

I'm not sure that I would recommend this book, but it was well written and kept me turning the page. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Allen Adams.
517 reviews28 followers
August 26, 2015

Picking up a book is a roll of the dice. They say one should never judge a book by its cover, but often, we have little more information than that to guide our decision as to whether or not to turn to the first page – particularly with a newly released work. We can investigate further if we so choose, but in doing so, we risk having our minds made up before the first word is read.

So we leap. Usually, we have a perfectly pleasant experience. Occasionally, we find ourselves disappointed. And sometimes – very rarely - we win the literary lottery.

Susan Barker’s “The Incarnations” is just such a jackpot. This sprawling, time-bending epic somehow manages to span a thousand years while still remaining grounded and intimate. It’s a monumental feat of writing; the sort of wildly engaging creativity that can never be predicted, but only embraced upon its discovery.

Wang is a taxi driver in Beijing. His may not be a glamorous life, but it is one into which he has settled comfortably. He has a wife and child, both of whom he loves dearly. His job is menial and mindless – certainly not the kind of thing envisioned for him by his high-level bureaucrat father – but it is his. He is content.

Everything changes one day when a letter drops into his lap as he flips down his cab’s visor. This letter – whose writer is a mystery, identifying him/herself only as Wang’s “soulmate” – is the first of many. It details the story of one of Wang’s past lives in vivid, haunting detail, telling the story of a life and death that took place many centuries ago.

Each of these lives – a peasant handed off as a spirit bride, a slave escaping the devastating grasp of Genghis Khan, a fisherman turned reluctant pirate during the Opium Wars, a teenaged member of the Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution – is meticulously recounted. As the letters continue to appear, Wang finds himself descending into a conflicted confusion, the presence of the letters forcing him to readdress some of the murkier parts of his own past. He knows that he is being watched, but not the why … nor the watcher.

“The Incarnations” is an undeniably ambitious undertaking, both for the writer and for the reader. The sheer scale is impressive enough, yet it is also handled with such deft subtlety that it never overpowers the intimate stories of the individuals at its center. It’s a delicate balance – one that Barker seems to strike without a hint of effort. The stories being told flash across many centuries of Chinese history, breathing life into moments both ancient and all too recent. The tales that unfold – both in the past and in the present – are fascinating and compelling, engulfing the reader fully and without apology.

It is also exquisitely written, but the book’s craftsmanship is admirable primarily after the fact; in the moment of reading, one is too swept up by the narrative flow to truly appreciate the fertile beauty of the prose. Literary fiction can sometimes seem preoccupied with its own preciousness – gifted writers wanting to ensure that readers notice their gifts – but Barker’s talent and self-assurance allows her prose and her plot to elevate one another, exponentially increasing the impact of both. The overall effect is genuinely remarkable.

I did not know what I was getting when I picked up “The Incarnations,” but I knew what I had after I finally put it down – a hypnotically brilliant, emotionally powerful piece of fiction that denied classification and demanded contemplation. It is indisputably one of the best books of the year.
Profile Image for Shannon Kirk.
Author 14 books409 followers
September 10, 2015
This book. Oh this book. This book forces me to reevaluate my top 5 books of all time. Perhaps reevaluate life. Do I displace Love in the Time of Cholera from the #1 spot? No, I can't do that. Do I move Orphan Master's Son down to the #3 spot? Aghhh. I can't do that. But this book. It is just downright outright flat-out absolute pure-grade genius. How did she do this? How did Barker pull all this together? I am in awe. The history lessons, the grand scope of political atrocities. The true power of sex over all humans. Indeed, that theme of the use of sex as power, or of succumbing to that power, seemed quite the literary intellectual answer to the frivolity of Fifty Shades of Grey. Reading this book made me both appreciate the time and place I live in as a woman, but also made me fear the lessons and lapses of history. The overarching storyline of soul-mates obsessing over and betraying each other life after life was a promised concept that sold me on the book, and boy did it deliver. Problem is, now I want more. Not sure where in my top 5 The Incarnations lands, but it's there and the list will be updated soon. If you are okay with dark themes, appreciate dark humor, love magical realism, understand the atrocities of history and the world at large, like Swamplandia (Karen Russell) and Orphan Master's Son, then you will love his book. And like Swamplandia and Orphan Master's Son, Incarnations should likewise get play from Pulitzer. It's that good.
Profile Image for Anna.
269 reviews93 followers
May 20, 2016
This book was one heck of a ride. Fascinating and captivating, the story Susan Barker tells weaves together a modern-day story of a taxi driver in 2008 in Beijing as the city prepares for the Olympics (a detail that turns out not to be that important), with the stories of his previous lives spanning 1,000 years of Chinese history. The stories of these incarnations are told through a series of anonymous letters that Driver Wang receives. The story follows Wang's quest to find the letters' author. As he goes not a little crazy trying to figure that out, we learn the story of his and his family's lives.
My library copy has a blue "Mystery" sticker on its spine, but it's hard to put this book into that category. There is a mystery -- who keeps writing these damn letters and why??? -- And by the time you get to the end of the book, you do find that out; of course it's the last person you think it is.
As fun as it is to try and figure it out (I didn't!) I loved relishing in the historic detail of the incarnation stories. However, I loved Wang the most, as he was the true beating heart of the narrative, and I wanted a more satisfying ending for him. It ended disappointingly, and I don't want to say too much, because I'd rather you read it and decide how you feel about the ending yourself, but there is something full-circle about the story's conclusion, and it left me wanting more.
Profile Image for Fish Upon the Sky.
37 reviews2 followers
November 6, 2021
This book is a masterpiece! Intertwined, excellent stories weaved to create a memorable journey of several lifetimes. So many great things to say about this novel, but to point out some of its most outstanding qualities:

1. Brilliant storytelling. I'm a huge fan of beautiful writing, descriptive yet easy flowing directions. 'The Incarnations' gives just that.

2. The plot does not shy away from the most controversial issues: political or social. Its brave on its own way, bold and gearing away from standard norms; giving the book a unique, unforgettable quality.

3. From the title itself, 'The Incarnations' narrates how two souls live several sets of life through thousands of years, each soul destined to meet again and again through each lifetime of love or joy or tragedy. The idea seems grand and intimidating: coursing through ancient China, Emperors and concubines, Mongols invading territories, Chairman Mao revolutions--but the novel served justifiably.

4. We often read about stories happening in New York or London or Tokyo, but this novel was set under the towering skycrapers of Beijing, its busy streets swarmed with taxi cabs and envoloped with smog. Vivid and straightforward, the writing perfectly captures up to the smallest details of a mega city life.

Glad I read this book! Definitely a journey I won't forget!
Profile Image for Rebecca Rouillard.
Author 2 books33 followers
September 3, 2014
The Incarnations is set in Beijing in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics and Taxi Driver Wang is being stalked by an anonymous letter-writer who claims that they are reincarnated soul mates. As Wang's personal life starts to unravel he recalls some difficult relationships in his own past and the letter writer sends him stories of their relationship in each of their prior incarnations. It sounds like quite a sentimental idea but this is not a rose-tinted story - themes of betrayal, mutilation and death crop up in each incarnation.

Above all Susan Barker is a phenomenal storyteller. She time travels seamlessly from the Tang Dynasty in AD 632 to contemporary Beijing and each snippet of each incarnation, rich in convincing detail, is utterly mesmerising. In addition to this she weaves all of her stories together into a suspenseful plot. Comparisons with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are justifiable. The Incarnations has a slightly more coherent plot, though, as all the stories are located in China, though Barker deals with many different cultural groups within this geographical area at various different points in history. It's a very interesting concept and well realised.
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