Reviews of The Incarnations by Susan Barker

The Incarnations

A Novel

by Susan Barker

The Incarnations by Susan Barker X
The Incarnations by Susan Barker
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    Readers' Opinion:

  • 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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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 will 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 ...
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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...continued

Full Review (597 words).

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(Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky).

Media Reviews

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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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, ...

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