BookBrowse Reviews The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Incarnations

A Novel

by Susan Barker

The Incarnations by Susan Barker X
The Incarnations by Susan Barker
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 384 pages
    May 2016, 384 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
Buy This Book

About this Book



A gripping novel that weaves together over one thousand years of Chinese folklore, history and literature.

Why, in my time at BookBrowse, have I written reviews of four books set either in New Orleans or the bayous of Louisiana? What accounts for my fierce love of grits and bread pudding and jambalaya? Was I a New Orleanian in a past life, in exile in this life?

I'm only wondering about one past life. Try five. In The Incarnations, Wang Jun, a dispirited taxi driver in pre-2008 Olympics Beijing, is told that he has lived five lives. This startling news comes to him in a letter from a mysterious, unseen stranger, someone who also tells him that their lives – all of them – have intertwined. Through a clever use of alternating chapters that move between the present and each of the other four pasts, the reader learns about the many versions of Wang Jun: he was forced into becoming a eunuch after incest with his mute sister in the Tang Dynasty in 632 A.D. The stranger was his daughter from the act, a celebrated prostitute in one of Chang'an's brothels. He was also one of many slaves to the Mongols in a trek through the Gobi desert after the fall of the Jin Dynasty in 1213 (the stranger, a fellow slave); a new concubine in the palace of Emperor Jiajing, the Chinese equivalent of the tyrannical Roman emperor Caligula, during the Ming Dynasty in 1542 (the stranger was the head concubine); and was part of the stark, horrific barbarism of the Cultural Revolution in a radicalized girls' school in 1966 (the stranger was a girl who he had initially protected from schoolgirl taunts). In essence, Barker explores one character's complex being through multiple versions of his life.

All of the past lives are quite a contrast from the life Wang Jun currently lives as husband to Yida and father to Echo, and co-owner of a green-and-yellow cab with the decrepit-looking Baldy Zhang. Maybe, after all of his past-life adventures, his current life is simply a well-deserved break – even including the mental breakdown in college that caused his tyrannical politico father to put him in an institution, and even including the fact that he has discovered his true sexuality with his lover Zeng Yan.

A great deal of The Incarnations is taken up by sex in its many forms and positions and desires. On the surface, it all reads like Harold Robbins in China, but ultimately, it's not sex for sex's sake. Rather, Susan Barker explores it as a deeper connection between people. How they use it, what they gain by it, and whether it draws them closer together all become important questions. Barker also skillfully provides amusement through creative sexual euphemisms, especially in the Hummingbird Inn brothel during Wang Jun's first past life. They're poetic while being wry at the same time.

In fact, wry humor is crucial to experiencing The Incarnations, because this is bleak stuff. There's little genuine happiness to be found among its characters. And this is where Barker does her best work, refocusing the reader's attention in order to blunt the sharp impact of Wang Jun's harsh past lives. Her descriptions of the workaday nature of illicit massage parlors, for example, are actually funny. Barker's humor softens tough subjects over and over again.

Altogether, The Incarnations produces a strong magnetic pull toward reading more epic novels that have a supernatural or magical element. I might never know if I was once a New Orleanian, but Barker provides a dynamic reminder that in books, we can be any character we want to be, and know each of them intimately, even across lifetimes.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in September 2015, and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Wilder Girls
    Wilder Girls
    by Rory Power
    In Rory Power's Wilder Girls, the Raxter School for Girls, located on Raxter Island off the coast of...
  • Book Jacket: Inland
    by TĂ©a Obreht
    It's 1893 and the sparsely populated settlement of Amargo, deep in the Arizona Territory, is ...
  • Book Jacket
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...
  • Book Jacket: Conviction
    by Denise Mina
    Scottish author Denise Mina's latest novel, Conviction, is a fast-paced thriller narrated by Anna, a...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Ellie and the Harpmaker
    by Hazel Prior

    A rich, heartwarming and charming debut novel about finding love in unexpected places.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club
Book Jacket
America for Beginners
by Leah Franqui

A poignant debut that explores unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Book Club Giveaway!
Win Crudo

Crudo by Olivia Laing

A brilliant, funny, and emphatically raw novel of love on the brink of the apocalypse.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

S A A B In A R

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.