The Incarnations, by Susan Barker

23492504Many people in the world are looking for their soulmate—their perfect match, the person who will come to know them better than anyone else, someone who it seems like they’ve always known when they first meet them. Wang Jun is not one of these people, but there is someone in the world that knows him better than anyone else and who really has always known him. Wang Jun just doesn’t know it yet. Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is not a romantic love story; it is the dark twin to a love story. An unnamed narrator is stalking Wang Jun, trying to reconnect with the man this narrator has already spent five past lives with.

The identity of the narrator remains a secret for most of The Incarnations, but the letters this narrator leaves in Wang Jun’s taxi tell us who this narrator was. According to this narrator, Wan Jun has always had a presence in this person’s life, from the Tang dynasty up through the Cultural Revolution. According to this narrator, they have been father and daughter, lovers, concubines, rescuer and rescuee, slaves, and Red Guards. The stories are all bloody and heartbreaking and chilling. Nothing has gone right for these two over the centuries. Needless to say, the letters freak Wang Jun out.

In this incarnation, Wang Jun is the son of a successful Party official who has shunned his family. He married an immigrant from Anhui, had a child, and lives in his deceased mother’s apartment. He drives a taxi for a living and has refused to take any help from his father, if he can possibly avoid it. He’s content with his life in Beijing. The unnamed narrator throws everything out of balance with their letters. As The Incarnations progresses, Wang Jun grows increasingly paranoid. He accuses almost everyone of being the letter writer. Worse, the letter writer seems to be trying to break up Wang’s marriage as well as get Wang to remember their lives together. The letters, to me, showed that the unnamed narrator has always been desperate for Wang’s approval and love through all their loves. Wang and his past selves remain, if not deliberately aloof, oblivious to the unnamed narrator’s consuming love. Yet the unnamed narrator holds out hope that this time it will be different.

Reading The Incarnations reminded me strongly of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and SaltBoth books share the premise of souls following each other through a series of lives. Presumably, these souls are supposed to learn over the course of those lives and fix the defects in their characters. But this is where The Incarnations departs from The Years of Rice and Salt. Wang Jun and his unnamed stalker never learn. They are each other’s worst enemies in many of their lives—sometimes while being lovers. They ruin each other’s lives over and over again. Sometimes one causes the other’s violent death. If I were Wang, I would want to get as far away from this person as possible. The idea of cadres of souls traveling through time together fascinates me. In a sense, The Incarnations is a counter to the somewhat utopian version in The Years of Rice and Salt.

This book had me hooked from the very beginning. In addition to Barker’s take on reincarnation, the novel took me on a terrifying journey through Chinese history through the eyes of mostly ordinary people. Thinking about it now, the vignettes in the unnamed narrator’s letters could be seen as microcosms of Chinese history as various forces tear the country and its people apart. In a sense, the events of the vignettes and the idea of reincarnations form a kind of literary ouroboros. The cycles of violence and betrayal and need and lust and power struggle are inescapable. But, just like Pandora, hope is there in the mix, too. It’s a faint hope in The Incarnations, but it’s still there.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 18 August 2015.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend this book for romantic souls who need a little disillusionment about their unrealistic expectations of soulmates.

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