Excerpt from The Incarnations by Susan Barker, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Incarnations

A Novel

by Susan Barker

The Incarnations by Susan Barker X
The Incarnations by Susan Barker
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2016, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

Chapter 1
The First Letter

Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.

The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.

I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers' ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Headteacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Headteacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of the mob.

I dream that we stagger on hunger-weakened limbs through the Gobi as the Mongols drive us forth with lashing whips. I dream of razor-beaked birds swooping at our heads, and scorpions scuttling amongst scattered, sun-bleached bones on the ground. I dream of a mirage of a lake on shimmering waves of heat. I dream that, desperate to cure our raging thirst, we crawl there on our hands and knees.

I dream of the sickly Emperor Jiajing, snorting white powdery aphrodisiacs up his nostrils, and hovering over you on the fourposter bed with an erection smeared with verdigris. I dream of His Majesty urging us to 'operate' on each other with surgical blades lined up in a velvet case. I dream of sixteen palace ladies gathered in the Pavilion of Melancholy Clouds, plotting the ways and means to murder one of the worst emperors ever to reign.

Newsprint blocks the windows and electricity drips through the cord into the 40-watt bulb. For days I have been at my desk, preparing your historical records, my fingers stiffened by the cold, struggling to hit the correct keys. The machine huffs and puffs and lapses out of consciousness. I reboot and wait impatiently for its resuscitation, several times a day. Between bouts of writing I pace the cement floor. The light bulb casts my silhouette on the walls. A shadow of a human form, which possesses more corporeality than I do.

The Henan migrants gamble and scrape chair legs in the room above. I curse and bang the ceiling with a broom. I don't go out. I hunch at my desk and tap at the keyboard, and the machine wheezes and gasps, as though protesting the darkness I feed into its parts. My mind expands into the room. My subconscious laps at the walls, rising like the tide. I am drowning in our past lives. But until they have been recorded, they won't recede.


I watch you most days. I go to the Maizidian housing compound where you live and watch you. Yesterday I saw you by the bins, talking to Old Pang the recycling collector, the cart attached to his Flying Pigeon loaded with plastic bottles, scavenged to exchange for a few fen at the recycling bank. Old Pang grumbled about the cold weather and the flare-up in his arthritis that prevents him reaching the bottom of the bins. So you rolled up your coat sleeve and offered to help. Elbow-deep you groped, fearless of broken glass, soapy tangles of plughole hair and congealed leftovers scraped from plates. You dug up a wedge of styrofoam. 'Can you sell this?' you asked. Old Pang turned the styrofoam over in his hands, then secured it to his cart with a hook-ended rope. He thanked you, climbed on his Flying Pigeon and pedalled away.

After Old Pang's departure you stood by your green and yellow Citroën, reluctant to get back to work. You stared at the grey sky and the high-rises of glass and steel surrounding your housing compound. The December wind swept your hair and rattled your skeleton through your thin coat. The wind eddied and corkscrewed and whistled through its teeth at you. You had no sense of me watching you at all.

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Excerpted from The Incarnations: A Novel by Susan Barker. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Barker. Originally published in Great Britain in 2014 by Doubleday. Used by permission of Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc

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