The Incarnations: A Novel
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The Incarnations: A Novel

3.5 4
by Susan Barker

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New York Times Notable Book of 2015
Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2015
Finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction
Winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize

Hailed by The New York Times for its “wildly ambitious...dazzling use of language” and “mesmerizing


New York Times Notable Book of 2015
Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2015
Finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction
Winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize

Hailed by The New York Times for its “wildly ambitious...dazzling use of language” and “mesmerizing storytelling,” The Incarnations is a “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

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 a century. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, literary classics, and the notion of reincarnation, this is a taut and gripping novel that reveals the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A hypnotic journey through 1,500 years of China’s history . . . Culminates in a shocking and violent conclusion that will haunt you for weeks.”–Paste Magazine

“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. . . . 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.”—The Maine Edge

"The glittering prose, dazzling details and breathtaking scope of the author's vision will reward anyone who admires superb writing. . . . A powerhouse of a novel."—Washington Independent Review of Books

"An idiosyncratic epic to savor."—San Francisco Chronicle

The New York Times - Sarah Lyall
“Wildly ambitious . . . [Barker’s] dazzling use of language and natural storytelling gifts shine from every paragraph. As with David Mitchell, whose books can similarly hopscotch through times and places, each episode stands alone as a terrific tale in itself. You can become so immersed in one story that you have to almost physically drag yourself away to commit to the next. . . . Mesmerizing storytelling.”
The New York Times Book Review - Simon Winchester
“Astonishing, amazing . . . It’s the small sagas of Chinese history contained in the letters, together with Barker’s vivid descriptions of today’s China, that set this book apart as a work of considerable, if unnerving, importance. . . . Tightly wound, intensely wrought, fantastically exciting . . . Beguiling, readable, intense . . . The book’s stellar narrative carries us briskly along.”
” NPR "All Things Considered
“A sinuous tale of soul mates.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"A dazzling tapestry of epic scope . . . [An] ambitious, enthralling tale, a deft melding of past and present, myth and reality, longing and torment."
Boston Globe
"[Barker] has smartly structured this intricate tale, and its mystery pulls us forward. . . . The novel gains in power and polish as it progresses. . . . Close to the end, I found myself stalling—prolonging suspense."
The Columbus Dispatch
“Barker makes Wang and his city as vividly real—and disturbing—as any of the other versions of China. . . . One of the novel’s many structural pleasures is watching Barker slowly reveal the connections between Wang’s seemingly simple life and the other lives the letter writer reveals.”
Highly successful as art and craft…THE INCARNATIONS uses its unique premise to combine a series of short stories based in history with a realistic account of a difficult modern life, for much more than the sum of the parts.
"Daring . . . 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. . . . 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."
The New Yorker
“[A] kaleidoscopically imaginative novel…Barker stitches together an unnervingly perceptive portrait of China and of the enduring influence that its past has on the present.”
The Incarnations works perfectly as a collection of studied, precise short stories unified by simple but powerful themes and a bevy of stylistic strengths.”
New York Times Book Review (paperback row)
“Wildly inventive”
Publishers Weekly
★ 05/18/2015
With her latest, Barker (Sayonara Bar) produces a page-turning reincarnation fantasy. In modern-day Beijing, Driver Wang receives anonymous letters from a source claiming to have known him in five previous lifetimes over the past 1,000 years. The letters narrate these lifetimes—set in the Tang Dynasty, 632 C.E.; the Jin Dynasty, 1213; the Ming Dynasty, 1542; the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and the People’s Republic of China, 1966—and paint them in lush historical detail, exhibiting Barker’s extensive research. These two “souls” have inhabited many rich characters (eunuch, prostitute, slave, concubine, pirate, Red Guard) and have been friends, enemies, parents, and lovers. Every new incarnation reverses their power dynamic, giving one the opportunity to betray the other. Not for the squeamish, these historical narratives contain graphic torture and sexual violence. Meanwhile, Wang’s current incarnation also includes a series of radical shifts and identities within a lifetime: born to a wealthy government official father and a mentally unstable mother, he has been a promising student, an asylum inmate, a closeted homosexual, a husband, a father, and a taxi driver. Driving the narrative is the suspense over the identity of Wang’s stalker and whether the stories are indeed true. A very memorable read. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Originally published in Britain in 2014, this new work by British author Barker (Sayonara Bar) brings to readers an engrossing tale of a taxi driver in Beijing and his hauntingly mysterious stalker during the 2008 Olympics. Wang Jun, estranged son of a wealthy government official, devoted husband, and father of a young daughter, begins to find a series of letters in his taxi describing incidents of reincarnation and destiny. The initial letter reveals that Wang Jun is being watched by an old friend and soul mate. What follows are tales from Wang Jun's stalker of incarnations from a past beginning with the Tang dynasty in 632 CE and ranging up to 1966. Interspersed throughout are chapters revealing the details of Wang Jun's history, including a stay in a mental hospital and a same-sex love affair. VERDICT Barker's writing is fluid, and the plotlines and characterizations found in her historical tales, while dark and sinister, are nonetheless intriguing. Misunderstandings abound throughout the novel to unravel the past that collides intensely with the present, ultimately leading to a disquieting finale.—Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-05-13
A letter from a mysterious stalker upends the life of a Beijing taxi driver in Barker's (The Orientalist and the Ghost, 2009, etc.) stunning epic, which spans a thousand years of Chinese history and six lifetimes of betrayal. Wang Jun, husband of Yida, father of Echo, is driving down Workers Stadium Road when the first note falls from the visor of his cab. "I watch you most days," it reads. It is taunting in its anonymity: "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." And so begins Wang's unraveling. In the present, it's 2008. The city is preparing for the impending Olympics, and Wang—distanced from his troubled family, mostly recovered from the nervous breakdown of his college years—has carved out something like contentment for himself: a beautiful wife, a beloved child, a job, if not the one he once seemed destined for. But this is not Wang's first or only life, the letters explain. There have been other incarnations. He and the "soulmate" have, in fact, been intimately connected for more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Opium War to the Cultural Revolution. They have been father and illegitimate daughter, the product of incest and fellow courtesans to the sadistic Emperor Jiajing; schoolmates at the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls and Jurchen boys, enslaved by the Mongols. Moving between Wang's many pasts, all of them thrilling, gruesome, and tragic, and his increasingly desperate present, Barker's historical tour de force is simultaneously sweeping and precise. It would be easy for the novel to teeter into overwrought melodrama; instead, Barker's psychologically nuanced characters and sharp wit turn the bleakness and the gore into something seriously moving. Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.

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5.30(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Incarnations

  • Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.

    The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.

    I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers’ ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Headteacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Headteacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of the mob.

    I dream that we stagger on hunger-weakened limbs through the Gobi as the Mongols drive us forth with lashing whips. I dream of razor-beaked birds swooping at our heads, and scorpions scuttling amongst scattered, sun-bleached bones on the ground. I dream of a mirage of a lake on shimmering waves of heat. I dream that, desperate to cure our raging thirst, we crawl there on our hands and knees.

    I dream of the sickly Emperor Jiajing, snorting white powdery aphrodisiacs up his nostrils, and hovering over you on the four-poster bed with an erection smeared with verdigris. I dream of His Majesty urging us to “operate” on each other with surgical blades lined up in a velvet case. I dream of sixteen palace ladies gathered in the Pavilion of Melancholy Clouds, plotting the ways and means to murder one of the worst emperors ever to reign.

    Newsprint blocks the windows and electricity drips through the cord into the 40-watt bulb. For days I have been at my desk, preparing your historical records, my fingers stiffened by the cold, struggling to hit the correct keys. The machine huffs and puffs and lapses out of consciousness. I reboot and wait impatiently for its resuscitation, several times a day. Between bouts of writing I pace the cement floor. The light bulb casts my silhouette on the walls. A shadow of a human form, which possesses more corporeality than I do.

    The Henan migrants gamble and scrape chair legs in the room above. I curse and bang the ceiling with a broom. I don’t go out. I hunch at my desk and tap at the keyboard, and the machine wheezes and gasps, as though protesting the darkness I feed into its parts. My mind expands into the room. My subconscious laps at the walls, rising like the tide. I am drowning in our past lives. But until they have been recorded, they won’t recede.

    *  *  *

    I watch you most days. I go to the Maizidian housing compound where you live and watch you. Yesterday I saw you by the bins, talking to Old Pang the recycling collector, the cart attached to his Flying Pigeon loaded with plastic bottles, scavenged to exchange for a few fen at the recycling bank. Old Pang grumbled about the cold weather and the flare-up in his arthritis that prevents him from reaching the bottom of the bins. So you rolled up your coat sleeve and offered to help. Elbow-deep you groped, fearless of broken glass, soapy tangles of plughole hair and congealed leftovers scraped from plates. You dug up a wedge of Styrofoam. “Can you sell this?” you asked. Old Pang turned the Styrofoam over in his hands, then secured it to his cart with a hook-ended rope. He thanked you, climbed on his Flying Pigeon and pedalled away.

    After Old Pang’s departure you stood by your green and yellow Citroën, reluctant to get back to work. You stared at the grey sky and the high-rises of glass and steel surrounding your housing compound. The December wind swept your hair and rattled your skeleton through your thin coat. The wind eddied and corkscrewed and whistled through its teeth at you. You had no sense of me watching you at all.

    You got back inside your cab and I rapped my knuckles on the passenger-side window. You nodded and I pulled the back door open by the latch. You turned to me, your face bearing no trace of recognition as you muttered, “Where to?”

    Purple Bamboo Park. A long journey across the city from east to west. I watched you from the back as you yawned and tuned the radio dial from the monotonous speech of a politburo member to the traffic report. Beisanzhong Road. Heping South Bridge. Madian Bridge. Bumper to bumper on the Third Ring Road, thousands of vehicles consumed petrol, sputtered exhaust and flashed indicator lights. You exhaled a long sigh and unscrewed the lid of your flask of green tea. I swallowed hard.

    I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

    Zhongguancun Road, nearly there. Thirty minutes over in a heartbeat. Your phone vibrated and you held it to your ear. Your wife. Yes, hmmm, yes, seven o’clock. Yida is a practical woman. A thrifty, efficient homemaker who cooks for you, nurtures you and provides warmth beside you in bed at night. I can tell that she fulfills the needs of the flesh, this pretty wife of yours. But what about the needs of the spirit? Surely you ache for what she lacks?

    Purple Bamboo Park, east gate. On the meter, 30 RMB. I handed you some tattered 10-RMB notes; the chubby face of Chairman Mao grubby from the fingers of ten thousand laobaixing. A perfunctory thank-you and I slammed out. There was a construction site nearby, and the thoughts in my head jarred and jangled as the pneumatic drills smashed the concrete up. I stood on the kerb and watched you drive away. Taxi-driver Wang Jun. Driver ID number 394493. Thirty-one, careworn, a smoker of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. The latest in your chain of incarnations, like the others, selected by the accident of rebirth, the lottery of fate.

    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. I pity your poor wife, Driver Wang. What’s the bond of matrimony compared to the bond we have shared for over a thousand years? What will happen to her when I reappear in your life?

    What will become of her then?

  • Meet the Author

    Susan Barker is the author of Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and the Ghost, both longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She grew up in East London with a Chinese-Malyasian mother and a British father, and studied creative writing at the University of Manchester. She spent several years living in Beijing while working on The Incarnations, and currently lives in the UK.

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    Incarnations 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    A glimpse of Chinese history through a modern looking glass.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Historically I guess it is accurate. But the story is to real. No love. No hope. No happy ending.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Bibliophile More than 1 year ago
    I am generally a huge fan of the B&N Discover New Writers selections and this one did not disappoint. Usually I am not someone who enjoys having to "suspend reality" for a novel, but was able to do so quite happily with this one. The story is very engaging, and provides an interesting look at past and present China. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell.