The Incarnations by Susan Barker is an ambitious novel that centres around a taxi driver called Wang, who has begun to receive some disturbing letters from someone who claims to know him from past lives. We are swept across Chinese history and shown how these two are connected across centuries and reincarnations. Things get intense with Wang as this mysterious person begins stalking and threatening his family. A number of reviews call this book ‘China’s Midnights Children’, which I don’t think is fair to either Barker or Rushdie. While Midnight’s Children is meandering (in a good way!), The Incarnations is tightly plotted, to the point where, despite the lack of action scenes, the end of the book is so tense that it could almost be called a suspense novel.
Barker has a gift for pacing and quickly sweeping the reader into her worlds. When the past lives are inserted into the narrative, they could have come across as irritating as they often occur after cliffhangers. Instead, the tales of intrigue and betrayal are quickly engaging.
There’s a strange moment later in the novel, which shows the difficulty in fictionalising recent history: we’re shown young Chinese girls being forced to learn obviously skewed stories about the United States, which is explicitly criticised at times by the narrator; at other moments, we are watching these same young Chinese girls brutally torture those they suspect of capitalist thoughts and force feed their classmates pigs blood in a moment that feels like a crossover between Animal Farm and Carrie. I don’t doubt that things could be just as dangerous in Mao’s China as they are portrayed here. The purges and indoctrination are well documented. It’s that there’s something strange about a novel criticising biased portrayals about other cultures while at the same time showing China, over and over again, at its most brutal and cruel.
Despite its ambitions and engaging characters and story, The Incarnations never moves over the line from good to great to me. Things which engage sympathy rather than horror, and small touches of everyday life which can add verisimilitude to a story, crop up far less often than the Big Moments of strife, and the former would lend this novel pathos which is currently just lacking.
We’re shown the dazzle and oppression of this society, but the most riveting plots are of Wang’s marriage falling apart and the fate of his mother. That unfortunately makes the flashes to other lives not as engaging as they could be, despite the careful plotting, as they don’t feel entwined in the main narrative in the way that, say, Cloud Atlas managed.
I want to be clear: despite my complaints, I really liked this novel. The characters are well-crafted, and Barker’s prose is often intriguing even if it’s is let down by stilted dialogue. The Incarnation’s weaknesses only weigh it down as obviously as they do because its strengths helped it climb so close to greatness.