Book Review – The Incarnations by Susan Barker

When I was at the HK Book Fair a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. The description reads:

Beijing, 2008, the Olympics are coming, but as taxi driver Wang circles the city’s congested streets, he feels barely alive. His daily grind is suddenly interrupted when he finds a letter in the sunshade of his cab. Someone is watching him. Someone who claims to be his soulmate and to have known him for over a thousand years. Other letters follow, taking Wang back in time: to a spirit-bride in the Tang Dynasty; to young slaves during the Mongol invasion; to concubines plotting to kill the emperor; to a kidnapping in the Opium War; and to Red Guards during the Cultural revolution. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher in the shadows growing closer …Sweeping between China past and present, The Incarnations illuminates the cyclical nature of history, and shows how man is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

I once heard Wuthering Heights summed up as, “Miserable people making people miserable.” I think that is also an apt description of The Incarnations. I found the modern setting of the book the most boring, yet the historical sections (which are more my cup of tea) were all rather the same: the two main characters rape and murder each other in nearly every incarnation. It paints the worst possible picture of Chinese history and culture. I am by no means saying that Chinese history and culture are all rosy and lovely all the time. One of the reasons I don’t like Mo Yan is because he isn’t harsh enough in depicting the realities of Chinese society. However, I think there should have been more balance to the experiences of the characters. I suppose that could have been her point, that these two creatures are meant to be together ruining each others lives for all of eternity. No matter her intention, it made for a rather depressing read. It was well-written enough that I did finish it rather quickly, but it didn’t spark my interest enough to seek out anything else she has written.

What about you? Have you read The Incarnations? What did you think?