Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

review by Maryom

Wang is a Beijing taxi driver, married in a happy-enough but dull sort of way with a young daughter, plodding along in his daily routine till one day he finds a letter left for him in his cab. The letter turns out to be the first of many, comprising a series of short stories, cameos from China's often brutal past, in which two lovers meet in a series of reincarnations. The author claims to be one of this pair of lovers- and that Wang is the other; that they have met, loved and betrayed many times over the centuries, and will meet again soon.
All this coincides with the reappearance in Wang's life of a former lover - a male prostitute, towards whom he feels both attracted and repelled. Is he responsible for the letters? Is it just an elaborate attempt to win back Wang's affection? Someone is definitely stalking Wang and his family, growing closer and intent on harming them.

The Incarnations is a real epic of a novel; a complex story jumping backwards and forwards in time, it's story of desire and betrayal working itself out time and again over the centuries against the backdrop of China's history from the extravagant but dangerous Emperor's court to the schoolrooms of the 1960s Cultural Revolution; the two lovers are father and daughter, young captives by invading Mongols or concubines plotting to kill the Emperor. To further complicate matters, the story also jumps between Wang's life as it is now and flashbacks to show how he came, from a high position in society, to hold such a lowly one.
It's an amazing blending together of all these threads and themes: a potted history of China mixed with a compelling read which captures the atmosphere of these various historical periods and gives a wonderful insight into life in those times.
 I just found one slight niggle, it reminded too much of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt - though that is an alternate history of the world if European civilisation had collapsed with the Black Death, whereas The Incarnations is set very firmly in real events.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction

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