Summary: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “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 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.
Thoughts: Wang Jun is a taxi driver in Beijing. His life is relatively normal. Married. 1 kid. Okay job that pays the bills. Secret homosexual lust for a guy he met in a psych ward.
And a mysterious person sending him detailed and vivid letters about their past lives together.
Barker tells a brilliant and non-linear tale about Wang and his mysterious soulmate. The story is woven together in 3 parts: Wang’s present with his wife and kid, driving his taxi for a living and trying to make sense of the feelings he has for an old acquaintance; Wang’s childhood and early adulthood in an abusive and strained family situation; and the letters from Wang’s supposed soulmate, the person who has followed him from one life to the next, always meeting and developing some sort of relationship as they go along. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you which branch of the story I liked best, because they were all wonderfully compelling and full of amazing imagery and beautiful writing.
The letters themselves all tell different stories from different periods of China’s history, from over 1000 years ago right up to Wang’s present life. While the writer of the letters remembers all these past lives, Wang does not, and nor do the previous lives being written about. They’re not the same people in the same situations, just in different spots throughout history. Each past life is unique, each person an individual with their own urges, goals, faults, and so on. Each time these two end up drawn together for various reasons. Often there’s a sexual attraction, but not always. And a soulmate isn’t presented as a great romantic love, the way we often use the term. Instead, it’s somebody whose soul is joined with someone else’s, following them through lives, being a part of their life always. Sometimes it may be sexual. Sometimes not.
I kind of love this way of approaching soulmates, since the whole “love that lasts lifetimes” thing is wonderfully romantic, but it’s done so often that I get tired of seeing it. I often have a similar reaction to that presentation as I do to insta-love. It’s fine if two characters fall in love and get together, but having it be destiny or something they can’t help because of some past-life thing actually takes a lot of the interest out of it for me. There’s no drive for the characters to improve their relationship, or work at anything, because they’ll always mesh perfectly and there’ll never be anything to come between them. As I said, wonderfully romantic, but I’m tired of that. So it was a great thing to see the soulmate connection played out a bit differently. There is love, there is attraction, but those two things can have multiple layers, multiple presentations, and they don’t overcome everything.
As for the identity of the letter-writer, it’s an utter mystery until very near the end, as every good mystery should be. I spent most of the book trying to put together patterns from what was presented in the past lives, but every time I thought of who it might be, I’d also quickly be able to think of a very good reason why it also couldn’t possibly be that person. So the book really keeps you guessing.
But aside from the historical aspects of the book, Wang’s present-day life makes a strong story all on its own. It’s the kind of story that would easily stand alone as a piece of literary fiction. A man in a fairly average life has a secret forbidden romance that he wants kept hidden from his family, which arose due to trauma and a tremendously messed up set of situations in his childhood. Indeed, I’m sure plenty of book have been written with that idea as their framework. In this way, The Incarnations reminded me of Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Each part is a standalone story, utterly contemporary and on their own, still a good story. But it’s in the combination, the blending that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts.
Brilliant and evocative, The Incarnations is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, bound together with silver threads of fantasy. It’s a genre-bending masterpiece that I will most assuredly read again, and I highly recommend it to those fans of literary SFF or genre-crossing stories who are looking for something a little further from the beaten path.
(Received for review from the publisher.)