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Table of Contents
About The Book
Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2015
Finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction
Winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize
Hailed by The New York Times for its “wildly ambitious...dazzling use of language” and “mesmerizing storytelling,” The Incarnations is a “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.
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 four-poster 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 from 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.
You got back inside your cab and I rapped my knuckles on the passenger-side window. You nodded and I pulled the back door open by the latch. You turned to me, your face bearing no trace of recognition as you muttered, “Where to?”
Purple Bamboo Park. A long journey across the city from east to west. I watched you from the back as you yawned and tuned the radio dial from the monotonous speech of a politburo member to the traffic report. Beisanzhong Road. Heping South Bridge. Madian Bridge. Bumper to bumper on the Third Ring Road, thousands of vehicles consumed petrol, sputtered exhaust and flashed indicator lights. You exhaled a long sigh and unscrewed the lid of your flask of green tea. I swallowed hard.
I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.
Zhongguancun Road, nearly there. Thirty minutes over in a heartbeat. Your phone vibrated and you held it to your ear. Your wife. Yes, hmmm, yes, seven o’clock. Yida is a practical woman. A thrifty, efficient homemaker who cooks for you, nurtures you and provides warmth beside you in bed at night. I can tell that she fulfills the needs of the flesh, this pretty wife of yours. But what about the needs of the spirit? Surely you ache for what she lacks?
Purple Bamboo Park, east gate. On the meter, 30 RMB. I handed you some tattered 10-RMB notes; the chubby face of Chairman Mao grubby from the fingers of ten thousand laobaixing. A perfunctory thank-you and I slammed out. There was a construction site nearby, and the thoughts in my head jarred and jangled as the pneumatic drills smashed the concrete up. I stood on the kerb and watched you drive away. Taxi-driver Wang Jun. Driver ID number 394493. Thirty-one, careworn, a smoker of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. The latest in your chain of incarnations, like the others, selected by the accident of rebirth, the lottery of fate.
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. I pity your poor wife, Driver Wang. What’s the bond of matrimony compared to the bond we have shared for over a thousand years? What will happen to her when I reappear in your life?
What will become of her then?
Reading Group Guide
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Beijing, 2008. A mysterious letter appears in taxi driver Wang Jun’s cab. The anonymous sender claims to be Wang’s soulmate, and to have known him for over a thousand years:
I am the biographer of your past lives. For to have lived six times, but to only know your latest incarnation, is to only know one-sixth of who you are. To be only one-sixth alive.
Wang receives more letters. Each one takes him back in time: to a runaway girl searching for her long-lost father in the Tang Dynasty; to slaves fleeing through the Gobi desert after the Mongol Invasion; to concubines plotting murder in the Ming Dynasty; to an Englishman held to ransom during the Opium War; and to Red Guards rampaging through the streets of Beijing.
The letter writer also confesses to stalking Wang and his wife and child. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher in the shadows drawing nearer.
Sweeping majestically between China’s past and present, The Incarnations illuminates the cyclical nature of history and shows us how man is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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 eventually comes to believe that these stories are true representations of his past lives? Why or why not? Find moments in the text that support your answer.
4. Betrayal is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Is there any significance to who betrays whom as the two characters’ lives proceed together over hundreds of years? Do you think that their actions in one life affect the next life? Or does each life stand apart? Refer to passages in the text to support your answers.
5. Consider the notion of madness in the novel. Which characters are seen as mad, and why? How does this classification affect those characters in Chinese society—both in the present and in the past?
6. In the fourth letter, the writer declares, “We must rebel against fate. . . . Fate must be outwitted. It must no longer stand in our way” (page 117). What role does fate play in the story? Do you think the characters succeed in rebelling against fate in the last incarnation? Why or why not?
7. In the fifth letter, the writer notes that this “third biography has been more punishing than the others” (page 179). And after reading it, Wang is convinced he read the story at some point in his schooling since “the story had resonated so strongly in his memory” (page 215). All of the histories are graphic and brutal stories; why do you think this one (Ming Dynasty, 1542) is the most difficult for the writer to relive? Which of the five histories do you see as the darkest or most agonizing?
8. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that Shuxiang is the letter writer. How does this change your understanding of Wang and Shuxiang’s relationship as mother and son? Do you see her differently as a mother? Refer back to Wang’s memories of his mother, and compare them to Shuxiang’s own recollections.
9. In each of their incarnations, the two characters have complex and intense relationships with each other. After so much conflict and passion between them throughout the past thousand years, consider the significance of ending the novel with a mother and son relationship. Why do you think the author chose to end the novel on this note?
10. Consider Echo’s role throughout the novel, and at the end; the author brings the novel full circle, placing Echo into the same histories her father and grandmother lived. Despite her conviction that “The Watcher is mentally ill” (page 367), Echo begins to read the letters and stories of her past lives. As such a young child, how will Echo interpret these stories? Do you think Shuxiang was right to pass on her insight of previous incarnations to her granddaughter? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research one of the time periods through which Wang lives and discuss how the stories fit into the historical context (Tang Dynasty—632 AD; Jin Dynasty—1213; Ming Dynasty—1542; Qing Dynasty—1836; or People’s Republic of China—1966).
2. Wang dies before Shuxiang can reveal herself as the biographer of their past lives, and this is the only life in which the two do not witness one or the other’s last moments alive. Write a short chapter or scene imagining a reunion between Wang and Shuxiang, or discuss why you think the author chose not to include their reunion in the novel.
A Conversation with Susan Barker
How did you approach writing a novel that contains so many other intricately weaved stories within itself?
Compared to the writing of my previous novels, my approach to writing The Incarnations was haphazard, disorganized, and lengthy. I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2007 in order to research a new book. I wanted to write about modern China and the impact of the rapid social and political change on ordinary Beijingers. I also wanted to interweave several historical stories into the novel, as China’s history is so fascinating and rich with narrative possibility. I would like to say I approached the research and writing of The Incarnations in an orderly and systematic manner, but the truth is that I pretty much began researching all of the narratives at once, with only a hazy idea of how they would be structured into a novel.
For years I kept many notebooks full of jottings I made while walking round Beijing, or while reading about life during the Tang Dynasty, the Cultural Revolution, and the other eras in the novel. The contents of these notebooks slowly evolved into Driver Wang’s story and the five historical tales. I wrote about five or six drafts of The Incarnations and the process was disorderly—I returned to different sections at random and in nonchronological order, figuring out how they fitted together along the way.
The stories from the incarnations throughout history are extremely vivid and distinct from each other. Did you find it difficult to switch from period to period? Did you change anything about your writing process to accommodate this narrative flow?
Once I had done the preliminary research it was fairly easy to switch between the historical eras—in fact it was quite invigorating and fun to be writing about seventh-century Tang Dynasty Chang’an one week, and then switch to the nineteenth century and the Opium War the next. Almost like time-traveling (albeit very slowly and limited by variables such as work ethic, imagination, and typing speed).
Not only does the novel jump through history, it also moves backwards into Wang’s life. Why did you decide to frame the story in this way?
We are the sum of our experiences; our present selves are shaped by the events that occurred in our past. I wanted to tell the story of Wang’s childhood, his detainment in the mental institution, and ill-fated relationship with Zeng Yan, in order to offer the reader more insight into Wang’s behavior in the present day. Wang Jun is a very passive character, but this doesn’t mean he is not multifaceted and complex. I wanted to show the reader the formative experiences that made Wang Jun who he is.
Describe your research methods for the novel. China has such a rich and long history from which to draw: how did you narrow down which time periods to include for the incarnations?
I researched the contemporary sections of the novel by exploring Beijing by bus, taxi, and foot, and making notes about what I saw. I spent about five years living in China (on and off) between 2007 and 2014, and this observational method of research was ongoing throughout that time. I also read as many books on modern Chinese society, politics, and culture as I could get my hands on.
Though I knew I wanted to weave historical stories into the novel, I initially wasn’t sure which eras to write about, so I read books that gave an overview of the last two millennia of Chinese history from the Qin Dynasty to Chairman Mao. When I encountered a historical incident or figure that I found fascinating, for example Genghis Khan and the Mongol Invasions, or Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty, I would deepen my research into that individual or era. I found that as I read and made notes, ideas for plots and characters would emerge from my research. Sometimes straight away, sometimes over several weeks or months.
Do you have a favorite of the incarnations? If so, which one and why?
My favorite incarnation is Concubine Swallow in the “Sixteen Concubines” story, which is based on an actual historical event. Emperor Jiajing was the eleventh emperor of the Ming dynasty and was alleged to have been a sexual sadist who tortured his concubines. One night in October 1542, sixteen of the concubines crept into his bedchamber in the Forbidden City and attempted to strangle him with a silken cord. However, the assassination plot was thwarted and the concubines were executed.
I wanted to fictionalize and write about this regicidal plot from the concubines’ perspective because I admired how they fought back against the emperor, and were willing to sacrifice their lives to do so. I also enjoyed writing in the voice of Concubine Swallow—she is so scathing, darkly humorous, and self-loathing.
The novel centers on the idea of reincarnation, but the characters do not directly grapple with whether or not they believe in it. How did writing this novel affect your thoughts about reincarnation? Did you learn anything new about reincarnation from your research or through writing the novel?
At the risk of demystifying the novel, the use of reincarnation was initially a narrative device; a way of structuring and bringing together all of my separate research interests in China past and present. However over the years, as I wrote draft after draft of The Incarnations, the reincarnation aspect gained substance and became the essence of the book.
As well as structuring the novel, the idea of reincarnation and recurring souls also links to one of the themes of the book, which is the cyclical nature of history. The taxi driver Wang Jun keeps repeating the same destructive mistakes in each of his past lives, due to the innate flaws in his nature (wrath, self-interest, possessiveness, jealousy) that recur life after life. I also hoped to capture how the history of civilization is repetitive too, with the same vastly destructive power struggles playing out across the generations, arising from the same innate human flaws.
I am not sure whether or not I believe in reincarnation. Perhaps I do in my more irrational moments, but it’s a vast leap of faith to believe you’ve had past lives. My sister once met a medium when we were teenagers, who said that she (my sister) and I have been linked together for several past lives, but obviously I am skeptical.
With so much history embedded in the story, readers cannot help but become intrigued by China’s past. Were you aiming to incite readers’ interest in Chinese history and culture? Is there anything in particular you hope for people to take away from reading this novel?
I wasn’t aiming to incite readers’ interest in China’s past, but if The Incarnations encourages some readers to want to learn more about Chinese history, then that’s fantastic. I hope that the historical sections of The Incarnations offer the reader a glimpse of each era (though my fiction often deviates from historical truth into more surreal and fantastical terrain). I mostly hope that readers are moved and engaged by The Incarnations, that the book entertains.
Are there any writers that stand out as influences for you?
When it comes to contemporary writers I really like Nicole Krauss, W. G. Sebald, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Lydia Davis, Jenny Offill, David Mitchell, Peter Hessler, Sarah Hall, Zadie Smith. I can’t say how much they influence me, but reading amazing fiction always inspires me to write.
The end of novel brings Echo into the cycle of incarnations; have you thought about writing a sequel to The Incarnations?
I have no plans to write a sequel to The Incarnations, but I am half-tempted to write the Watcher’s “Sorceress Wu” story (which is the title of the story in the letter Echo opens on the very last page of the novel). I really enjoyed writing the character of the Sorceress Wu (the mother in the Night Coming story)—she was just so vehemently evil! I’d like to tell the story of how the Sorceress Wu lost her husband to bandits and turned to witchcraft. She probably wasn’t always evil. I imagine a series of tragic events made her that way.
What did you learn from writing this novel that may help you with future projects?
I spent six years writing The Incarnations and in the process of drafting and re-drafting the book I probably learned myriad technical things about characterization, plotting and structuring multiple narratives, and crafting prose. Other than aspects of craft, researching and writing The Incarnations was a lengthy and challenging undertaking (challenging for me at least) and completing one lengthy project always lends you courage to commence the next one—faith that, no matter how long it takes, it can be done.
- Publisher: Touchstone (August 18, 2015)
- Length: 384 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501106781
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Raves and Reviews
“Wildly ambitious . . . [Barker’s] dazzling use of language and natural storytelling gifts shine from every paragraph. As with David Mitchell, whose books can similarly hopscotch through times and places, each episode stands alone as a terrific tale in itself. You can become so immersed in one story that you have to almost physically drag yourself away to commit to the next. . . . Mesmerizing storytelling.”
– Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
“Astonishing, amazing . . . It’s the small sagas of Chinese history contained in the letters, together with Barker’s vivid descriptions of today’s China, that set this book apart as a work of considerable, if unnerving, importance. . . . Tightly wound, intensely wrought, fantastically exciting . . . Beguiling, readable, intense . . . The book’s stellar narrative carries us briskly along.”
– Simon Winchester, The New York Times Book Review
“A sinuous tale of soul mates.”
– "All Things Considered,” NPR
“A perfect conclusion brings home the writer’s warning: ‘History is coming for you.’”—New York Magazine (“7 Books You Need to Read This August”)
“Perfect fodder for summer's waning, Barker's novel is grim and gripping, a yarn for the ages.”—Interview Magazine
"A dazzling tapestry of epic scope . . . [An] ambitious, enthralling tale, a deft melding of past and present, myth and reality, longing and torment."
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[Barker] has smartly structured this intricate tale, and its mystery pulls us forward. . . . The novel gains in power and polish as it progresses. . . . Close to the end, I found myself stalling--prolonging suspense."
– Boston Globe
“Barker makes Wang and his city as vividly real--and disturbing--as any of the other versions of China. . . . One of the novel’s many structural pleasures is watching Barker slowly reveal the connections between Wang’s seemingly simple life and the other lives the letter writer reveals.”
– The Columbus Dispatch
“Barker’s fluid prose makes of their tragic stories irresistible reading….The stories come alive via a veritable catalog of dark and desperate details. This ambitious novel traffics in intrigue and betrayal yet never loses its hypnotic grip.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Barker has that rare contortionistic imagination possessed only by the finest Chinese literary legends such as Wu Cheng'en and Yu Hua, and this book is soaked deep in the vintage mysticism of Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan. It's a rare feat that a China-themed book could be this universally abiding. My favorite part being its setting: China is alive and deeply soulful under Barker’s knowing pen, making me want to revisit this mystic land of much enchantment.” —Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain and Brothers
“A page-turning reincarnation fantasy . . . Lush historical detail . . . A very memorable read.” —Publishers Weekly (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." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“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.” —South China Morning Post
“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 Independent (UK)
“Not since Jung Chang's Wild Swans has been such a visceral re-telling of the old days.” —Open Magazine (India)
"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 Guardian (UK)
"Barker resembles David Mitchell in the ability to weave together past and present in a convincing, and ultimately intriguing, manner."—Sydney Morning Herald
“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.”
—Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2013)
“A brilliant, mind-expanding and wildly original novel.”
—Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee
“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.”
—John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“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.” —Sunday Business Post (UK)
“What a ferociously talented writer Susan Barker is. The Incarnations is a hallucinatory ride. Highly recommended”
—Anna Hope, author of Wake
“Remarkable…Ambitious in scope, painstakingly researched and most importantly, a gripping read.”
“Light and often witty...There is tragedy, though perhaps not where the reader expects it, but there is also hope.”
Highly successful as art and craft…THE INCARNATIONS uses its unique premise to combine a series of short stories based in history with a realistic account of a difficult modern life, for much more than the sum of the parts.
"Daring . . . The novel’s shifts from the distant past to the present are seamless, and the bittersweet twist at the book’s finale will have readers searching back through the novel for clues to the ending. . . . Skillfully combines history, the supernatural and the everyday in a novel that suggests that the past is never really past, while providing a cracking good read."
“A hypnotic journey through 1,500 years of China’s history. . . . Culminates in a shocking and violent conclusion that will haunt you for weeks.”–Paste Magazine
“A jackpot. This sprawling, time-bending epic somehow manages to span a thousand years while still remaining grounded and intimate. It’s a monumental feat of writing; the sort of wildly engaging creativity that can never be predicted, but only embraced upon its discovery. . . . A hypnotically brilliant, emotionally powerful piece of fiction that denied classification and demanded contemplation. It is indisputably one of the best books of the year.”--The Maine Edge
“The Incarnations works perfectly as a collection of studied, precise short stories unified by simple but powerful themes and a bevy of stylistic strengths.”
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