Summary and book reviews of The Incarnations by Susan Barker

The Incarnations

A Novel

by Susan Barker

The Incarnations by Susan Barker
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky

Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

An original novel about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Hailed as "China's Midnight's Children" (The Independent) this "brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel" (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

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.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang's lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang's previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious "soulmate," spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

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, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Consider Wang's relationship with Yida. How have social and cultural constraints affected their union? For example, early on we learn that Yida, like many Chinese parents, had wanted a boy but Wang "had shamed her into keeping the baby" (their daughter, Echo; page 13). Are there other examples of how social norms or constraints have affected their relationship dynamic?
  2. The chapters telling the stories of Wang's past incarnations are written in the first person ("I") and the second person ("you"). How did this style affect your experience reading the story? Why do you think the author chose to frame these sections from this narrative perspective?
  3. Wang initially views the histories as "folktales" (page 75). Do you think he ...
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!

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

Full Review (597 words).

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A page-turning reincarnation fantasy ... Lush historical detail ... A very memorable read.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. [A] stunning epic ... Barker's historical tour de force is simultaneously sweeping and precise... Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.

The Independent (UK)

Reads as China's Midnight's Children. An utterly remarkable novel, it is certainly a very different book from Rushdie's but just as important in its historical and cultural sweep....Barker's storytelling is lively and addictive....She has an eye for the absurd and darkly comic.

The Guardian (UK)

Suspend your disbelief, flow along with this wonderful book, like the crazy traffic flowing around Beijing's six ring roads...The book moves effortlessly from past to present and back again....Masterful.

Sunday Business Post (UK)

Invigorating. To recreate convincingly a single historical period is an achievement. To recreate six is to approach virtuosity....Deft, smart, various and warm: a very good book indeed.

Sydney Morning Herald

Barker resembles David Mitchell in the ability to weave together past and present in a convincing, and ultimately intriguing, manner.

Thatsmags.com (China)

Light and often witty...There is tragedy, though perhaps not where the reader expects it, but there is also hope.

Publishing Perspectives

Remarkable…Ambitious in scope, painstakingly researched and most importantly, a gripping read.

Open Magazine (India)

Not since Jung Chang's Wild Swans has been such a visceral re-telling of the old days.

South China Morning Post

Barker's remarkable new novel is ambitious in scope, scholarly in depth and absolutely riveting. The Incarnations works on a number of levels, pulling together so many strands of history and perspectives and drawing them into a compelling and convincing tale. Part history, part love story, with good doses of horror, comedy and philosophy, it is ultimately a thriller and a page-turner…. The effect is explosive.

Author Blurb Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2013)
A thrilling journey through a thousand years of obsession and betrayal and a vivid tapestry of the individual's struggle against the tyranny of history, this is the most extraordinary work of imagination you'll read all year.

Author Blurb Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee
A brilliant, mind-expanding and wildly original novel.

Author Blurb John Boyne
An extraordinary novel. Erudite, intriguing and compulsively readable, The Incarnations takes the reader on an intimate and mesmerizing journey through Chinese history. Susan Barker, a born story-teller, has written one of the most remarkable novels of recent years.

Author Blurb Anna Hope, author of Wake
What a ferociously talented writer Susan Barker is. The Incarnations is a hallucinatory ride. Highly recommended

Reader Reviews

Rebecca

Wonderful concept
I was very excited to read this book. I was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation and being unaware of former lives until someone brings awareness of those lives through disturbing means. The book is beautifully written the author adds so much ...   Read More

Penny

The Incarnations
I really tried to like this book, but I could not even finish it. I believe there is much more to the history of China than sexual abuse and torture which was described very graphically. The premise of two "soul-mates" being reincarnated ...   Read More

Write your own review!

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!

Beyond the Book

Reincarnation and the Dalai Lamas

Susan Barker's The Incarnations explores the five lives of one man who, in his present life, is a taxi driver in Beijing. The highest-profile example of reincarnation is that of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet – 14 in all, so far. The Dalai Lamas come from the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists, which was founded in the late 14th century, devoting itself to restoring discipline in a monastic life. They believe that each Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the original.

Gedun DrupaGedun Drupa was the first Dalai Lama, born in 1391. However, the title of Dalai Lama was not adopted until the 1570s, so Drupa and his successor, Gedun Gyatso, were considered abbots in their lifetimes. Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama, was the first to hold the title, ...

This "beyond the book" feature is available to non-members for a limited time. Join today for full access.

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!

Readalikes

Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Incarnations, try these:

  • Street of Eternal Happiness jacket

    Street of Eternal Happiness

    by Rob Schmitz

    Published 2017

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    An unforgettable portrait of individuals who hope, struggle, and grow along a single street cutting through the heart of China's most exhilarating metropolis, from one of the most acclaimed broadcast journalists reporting on China today.

  • Speak jacket

    Speak

    by Louisa Hall

    Published 2016

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence - illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member


Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
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!

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Good Me Bad Me
    Good Me Bad Me
    by Ali Land
    Is a psychopath born or made? This is the terrifying question that author Ali Land explores in her ...
  • Book Jacket: Five-Carat Soul
    Five-Carat Soul
    by James McBride
    In the short story "Sonny's Blues," from the 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man, African-...
  • Book Jacket: This Blessed Earth
    This Blessed Earth
    by Ted Genoways
    For the Hammonds, a farming family in Nebraska, the 2014 harvest season started with a perfect storm...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

"A powerful, provocative debut ... Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental." - Kirkus, starred review

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Never Coming Back
    by Alison McGhee

    A moving exploration of growing up and growing old, and the ties that bind parents and children.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Wisdom of Sundays

The Wisdom of Sundays
by Oprah Winfrey

Life-changing insights from super soul conversations.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

A Good M I H T F

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & 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 books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.