This is a slightly retrospective post, as I read The Incarnations shortly before I went to China in September. I’d never heard of the book before, but I spotted it one day in the library and was intrigued by its elaborate cover. While I’m not usually all that keen on the ‘past lives’ school of historical fiction, this tale of reincarnation and rivalry echoing down the centuries proved to be very engaging. Unfolding among the grey blocks and smoggy air of 21st-century Beijing, it also offers a fictional primer to the last two thousand years of Chinese history, as one very ordinary man finds himself dogged by an insistent – and intrusive – ghost from his own past.
It’s 2008 and the Beijing Olympics are on the horizon. Wang Jun, a taxi driver, spends his days trawling his way through the gridlocked streets, uninspired and unstimulated. His few friends are fellow cabbies who meet in the company’s canteen, and his life revolves around his family: his beloved wife and daughter; his demanding father, prematurely disabled by a stroke; and his sultry stepmother Lin Hong. But Wang also knows that his life has been a failure: he has failed to seize his opportunities for progression. What he is now is all he will ever be. His existence has been nothing but a lack of excellence.
And then the letters start. We read them as they arrive: seductive, insinuating their way into Wang’s life, sent by someone who knows exactly who he is, where he goes, who he loves. And the letters tell a story that initially seems too incredible to believe. The writer claims that their soul is entwined with Wang’s: that they have been bound together throughout many lifetimes and many experiences, always destined to suffer together. The fates of a courtesan and a eunuch in the Tang dynasty; two slaves taken by the invading Mongols in the 13th century; two concubines in the harem of the vindictive Emperor Jiajing in the Ming period; a local boy and an Englishman on the Pearl River in the 19th century; and two schoolgirls in the Cultural Revolution… in each of these scenarios, the writer traces the indelible links binding their soul and destiny to Wang’s. And, each time a letter arrives to continue the story, the writer adds details which prove they are constantly watching Wang. But who is this anonymous stalker? Does Wang need to protect his family? If so, can he protect them from someone whose face he doesn’t know, and who believes they are destined to be together, no matter what?
Barker’s novel turns speculative fiction into thriller. These twinned souls are not reborn to find happiness with each other over again. On the contrary, the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ of these histories live turbulent lives, brought together by pain, thwarted desire, disgust, violence and misery. They trace the same pattern again and again in their different lives. As the letters gradually unfold more details about the past, we follow Wang in the modern day desperately trying to work out who his unknown correspondent is – this faceless, irresistible, patient ‘I’. As he searches, we learn more about his own history, giving us a taste of the privations, stresses and challenges of ordinary life in modern China. But can Wang find the answer before tragedy is enacted again?
Would I have picked this out on the blurb alone? Perhaps not. But Barker draws you in to her curious concept – half dark and threatening – half suffused with a love that has lasted centuries – until you are drawn deep into Wang’s life and mind, itching to find out what will happen. It’s a peculiar journey, but one that leaves a distinct shadow on your mind, the kind I found it very hard to shake off afterwards.