Book Review: Do you believe in reincarnation?

A couple of months ago, I joined an online book club. When the time to choose our first book came, I thought I’d have a hard time, until I spotted on the list a book called The Incarnations. Could it be, I asked myself, that it was what I thought it was? Spoiler alert: it was. I’m sure I’m right to believe we all have these little things that will pull us towards a book no matter what, and reincarnation is one of my things (somewhere in the list you can also find bisexual ladies and spaceships).

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.

theincarnationsSusan Barker tells in The Incarnations the story of two souls chasing each other through Chinese history. As a reader you will meet Wang, a married-with-a-daughter taxi driver in present day Beijing who starts receiving letters from an unknown source. The letters will talk him through the adventures, despair, love and betrayal of his (their) past lives, from his first incarnation during Tang Dinasty to their roles in the Cultural Revolution, stopping along the way in the times of the Mongol Invasion or the Opium War. As you read these letters with him, you will also be allowed glimpses of Wang’s past and his loved ones’, their secrets, their lies, how their lives are connected and how they came to become the people you meet in the book. Before I dig any deeper, let me say that it’s quite an intriguing ride.

I know little to nothing about Chinese history, but I do love history and it’s something I love learning about. Reincarnation is one of my weaknesses. Fate? Whether it’s impossible to break with or the characters fight it with all they have, you can add that one to the list I mentioned on the first paragraph. This book was pretty much custom-made for me, or so I thought, but for the sake of full disclosure I will admit to this: I struggled with it for a while, somewhere in the middle. A bit after the novelty of the letters wears off and before we learn more about Wang’s past, his present became tedious and at points his personality felt jarring to me. In retrospect, it made sense, and maybe some of it can be blamed to personal preference, but I’m nothing if not honest. I struggled a bit, yes, but I enjoyed the book nonetheless.

The structure of this book is such that we’re constantly traveling in time, meeting different people who lead completely different lives, and though we’re always brought back to the present, this means we are likely to enjoy some passages more than others. I found myself more interested in one letter because of the period it portrayed, because I got a sneak peek into court life or because one of the characters lead an absolutely fascinating life in that time that they didn’t in their following incarnation. In a way, I thought this was its biggest strength and weakness at once, because I found myself wanting to know more more more about that Tanka pirate but then I had to drag myself to finish some other part. One thing made me happy: these incarnations were different people through history, because of course your circumstances shape who you are, but I felt that the souls remained the same, and that’s how it all made sense in the end.

“A thousand years of obsession and betrayal”, said author Adam Johnson, and this blogger feels inclined to agree.

These people were always flawed, human, and the amount of times I wanted to shake them by their shoulders and point out how, why they were making Such A Big Mistake or why they were being Such Terrible Humans didn’t take from my enjoyment. In fact, the flaws, the ugly side that there was to every one of the main characters made for one of my favorite aspects of this book. They made mistakes and they made terrible decisions, sometimes under pressure, sometimes not, that they often defended (or seemed like they would have if asked to) until the very end. No heroes found in this book, just survivors who might or might not have deserved to. I loved this.

The Incarnations was a slow read, but that’s not bad. Sometimes it’s good to take time to read a book, to savor each part before you move onto the next, and this made all the more sense with this one, as I jumped from life to life. It was quite the ride, and I would recommend it to anyone who might enjoy stories about reincarnation, history, or effed-up humans trying to survive life itself. It was definitely a good read to start a new year.

Have you read it? Will you? Feel free to talk to me about it here or on twitter!

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Do you believe in reincarnation?

  1. treizeheures says:

    (Thank you for reviewing our book yay!)

    I honestly liked The Incarnations, very much so, but not as much as I had expected to. I was very much interested in Wang’s present life as a Taxi driver in Beijing, already vowing to take a closer look at the significance of a taxi as a space. But the story did not develop quite as I had expected (Is that a good thing? I guess?), but I found it hard to put the book down. I guess what rubbed me the wrong way were the characters.

    And this is what made the story good. None of the characters (except for Wang’s daugher, bless her) were likeable at all, but all of them were interesting. In a way, the frequent flashbacks weren’t even necessary to keep the story interesting as hell, Wang’s life was fucked up enough lmao.

    I think that was one of the flaws of the books – There was just so much.
    ” I found myself wanting to know more more more about that Tanka pirate but then I had to drag myself to finish some other part” –> THIS. As soon as you get proper involved into one of the inner narratives, the main story switches to the next…which was frustrating. It also made me painfully aware how little history I know and how I really need to read more of it and learn more about it (the little knowledge I do have is limited to Maoism and China’s relationship with early Korea).

    Another thing that made reading this a bit uncomfortable the further into the book I got was the amount of violence. Now I’m not someone who really has issues watching Hannibal over and over again, but some of this was so hard to read. I guess as it was accompanied by emotional abuse, and betrayal, and that kind of just made it all the worse…and my heart really went out for Zeng UGH

    • Raquel says:

      IT TOOK ME SO LONG TO ANSWER, I AM SO SO SO SORRY.
      I fuuully understand what you said about not liking it as much as you thought it would, even if you liked it very much. I think I felt the same, because I had expectations of getting x and I got y instead.
      “Another thing that made reading this a bit uncomfortable the further into the book I got was the amount of violence.” I thought whether to include a paragraph about this in the post or not, but I couldn’t articulate properly so I hoped if someone commented, it’d be brought up in the comments. I felt especially uncomfortable about the use of rape. I know it’s been historically abused, rape as a punishment, but it’s hard for me to be okay with reading it, and paired with emotional abuse and so on… It was hard on me too at points as well. Zeng specially. I wish maybe it’d had focused more on other things, I don’t know. It did was a hard pill to swallow sometimes 😐
      Thanks for commenting 😀 Ugh hopefully we propose/read something else soon? I’m super busy but I’d love for this book club to keep going!

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