Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: 'The Incarnations' by Susan Barker

A little over a year ago I moved to Shanghai and had my first true encounter with Chinese history and culture. I have found it to be a fascinating country, whose roots go deep and whose memory goes back far. Living in Shanghai means I’m right in a bustling centre of modernity, of new China with its highrise buildings and chain stores. But here traces still remain of its history, scattered across the city like small reminders of a not too distant past. When I saw The Incarnations I immediately felt drawn to it and new I wanted to read it while in China. I absolutely sank away into this novel and I has added immensely to my fascination with this country. Thanks to  and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/07/2014
Publisher: Doubleday
A stunning tale of a Beijing taxi driver being pursued by his twin soul across a thousand years of Chinese history, for fans of David Mitchell. *I dream of us across the centuries… I dream we stagger through the Gobi, the Mongols driving us forth with whips.
I dream of sixteen concubines, plotting to murder the sadistic Emperor Jiajing.
I dream of the Sorceress Wu lowering the blade, her cheeks splattered with your blood. I dream of you as a teenage Red Guard, rampaging through the streets of Beijing.
I am your soulmate, Driver Wang and now I dream of you.
You don't know it yet, but soon I will make you dream of me ....
The Incarnations is a story that spans centuries, but always comes back to temporary human life. Each life, each story, explores different aspects of what it means to be human and to be connected. However, The Incarnations doesn’t aim to elevate humanity to some high, divine state. Rather, it seems determined to show its readers exactly how messy, dirty, disappointing and glorious life can be. None of Barker’s characters are exactly likeable. All make mistakes, some worse than others but all to some definite extent. No one is entirely innocent in Barker’s world, all have been guilty once upon a time, and as these mysterious letters track Wang’s various lives, so they track how we live. The letters sent to Wang chronicle horror, pain, love, torture, kindness and cruelty, and they are beautiful. Is that perhaps oxymoronic? Yes, but it is also true. I wish I could describe this book better, it's actually really frustrating to not be able to encapsulate the effect this book had, so you might just have to take it on good faith.

As much as The Incarnations is about its two central characters, it is also very much about history and fate. History shapes countries, people and destinies, and China has a fascinating history. Barker reaches back centuries for her stories and thereby China itself becomes a character. Reading about these different ages of China, the reader truly grows an appreciation for this fascinating and varied country. The Incarnations moves across a whole range of civilisations, classes and gender roles, from pirates to courtesans, witches to Huns, Red Guards to taxi drivers, and each of these has a place in China. Wang and his mysterious twin spirit have been tied together for centuries, and now it is time Wang wakes up to their history. But would you want to know? Truly know your history, from every moment of bliss to every moment of darkness? As Wang learns more about his past, his present slowly starts to unravel as he begins to reassess and question things he once considered certain. In a way this is also how countries become aware of themselves, acknowledging their past and attempting to come to terms with it. Not every country can do this positively, and as Wang sinks into a strange kind of obsession and paranoia, so some countries do the same with their past.

Susan Barker’s writing is what makes this novel. The Incarnations has a very intricate structure, one which moves across time and also across perspectives. On the one hand we have Wang, the Beijing taxi driver whose life is being turned upside down by the arrival of strange letters. On the other hand there is the sender of said letters, describing not only their current state but also the lives that have come and gone, each iteration of them being both recognizable and utterly other. Barker beautifully combines all these different stories through her own style. The Incarnations is beautifully descriptive, evoking both the harshness of the Gobi Desert and the terror of the Red Guard, without ever sinking into the melodramatic. I found myself both fascinated by the letters and their history, as well as Wang's every day life, devouring it all. Towards the end the intensity of the novel is cranked up. I loved some of the twists at the end and I'm still thinking about them! The Incarnations is a magical reading experience.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Incarnations! Barker creates such magic in this novel that I simply didn't want it to end. I was enraptured by her visions from the past and have developed a completely new fascination with and appreciation for China. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Historical Fiction and Chinese history. 

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