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.
Susan 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!