Friday, 27 March 2015

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: This book is quite extraordinary. Wang is a Beijing taxi-driver who finds a letter tucked into the sun visor of his cab. The writer claims to have known him for over a thousand years, through various incarnations, and is watching him now. Unsettled, Wang continues with his daily grind, taking his daughter Echo to school, driving fares across the city, watching the preparations for the 2008 Olympics, but the letters keep coming. They tell of a father and daughter in the Tang Dynasty; slave boys driven across the desert by Mongols; concubines to a sadistic emperor; a fisherboy and British sailor captured by brutal sea bandits; two schoolgirls turned Red Guards in the 1960s; and a bond between two souls.

In parallel with the stories of previous lives, Wang is still struggling with this one. His wife’s job as a masseuse causes a constant low-level of jealousy. His helpless father – a thoughtless womaniser until his stroke – is now under the care of Li Hong, Wang’s stepmother, with her sharp eyes and vicious tongue. He runs into Zeng, whom he hasn’t seen since they became lovers at the clinic. But apparently Zeng’s watching him.

As the stories of the past grow closer to the present, the tension increases and Wang’s life feels out of his control. Will he break the cycle this time around or is he condemned to repeat the same mistakes again?

The combination of an absorbing modern-day story and the tales of dramatic periods in China’s past make for a fascinating if sometimes disturbing read. There is violence, betrayal, cruelty and sex; history at the human level. At almost 400 pages, this is dense, complex and completely absorbing, like being lost in a beautiful oriental maze.
This is not a book you will easily forget.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden or Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

Avoid if you dislike: brutal realities of life in China, historical fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Hot and sour prawns, a cold bottle of Tsingtao and Sao Tau Hay.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Available from Amazon

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