Review: Following the Cycle of History in “The Incarnations”

Allyson Floridia ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

The concept of death has always fascinated people. Is there a heaven or hell? Are people reincarnated into another existence as a plant, animal or new human being? Is there even an afterlife? All of these questions built the foundation for countless works of fiction searching for answers. Susan Barker is one author who dives into the mystical world of reincarnation. Her novel The Incarnations, which is set for hardcover publication by Touchstone this August, weaves an intricate tale of taxi driver Wang Hu’s possible past lives.

The novel is slow to start, introducing an unknown narrator who seems to know everything about Wang. Wang is a middle-aged taxi driver unsatisfied with his life. When a letter suddenly drops from the visor in his taxi, he begins to re-evaluate everything and everyone around him, and the people he knew from his adolescence. The letter is signed by his soulmate.

"The Incarnations" Cover. Source: Touchstone
“The Incarnations” Cover. Source: Touchstone

The novel’s chapters switch back and forth between Wang’s current life, childhood, the letters he receives, and the stories of his past lives, which are based off Chinese folklore, history, and classic literature. The first story is dated in 436 AD. Reading about Wang’s previous lives is the most compelling aspect of the novel. The first few are written like folklore, stories that are exotic and almost unbelievable. As the dates get closer and closer to the present, readers begin to spot some of the traits depicted from a past life in Wang. This is when interest builds for Wang’s present life. At the beginning of the novel, the pace is slow and it’s an anxious wait until the next letter and accompanying tale arrives. This slow pace could reflect Wang’s unhappiness with his state of being and the monotony of his job. More energy sparks from the pages as Wang’s fixation on the letters increases.

The writing itself is restrained and direct. Rather than flowery descriptions, many scenes are stated, but this doesn’t take away from the novel. The author isn’t overfilling the pages with unnecessary detail, but narrates the story as if speaking directly to the reader. This is what happened then. This is what happened now. And while each past life story is distressing, horrifying, and tremendously violent, this simply demonstrates that people are always battling conflicting emotions and can be thrust into terrible situations. In this way, the stories tell the proverb: life isn’t easy.

The ultimate revelation of the letter writer’s identity is shocking. It makes readers immediately jump back to previous chapters and gasp when they realize how one seemingly unimportant action ties into the much bigger picture. Every detail is weaved intricately into the plot line and subtly illustrates how everything is connected. The novel describes history as cyclical, re-living and re-imagining human nature and people’s interactions with each other. The final reveal brings back the question of reincarnation’s actuality. Are the letters real or imagined works of fiction?

The Incarnations by Susan Barker becomes a thrilling and thoughtful journey steeped in Chinese history. While the pace may be slow in places, the letters recording Wang’s past lives more than compensate. These stories are painfully lamenting, yet laced with hope for an alternate outcome. This novel is definitely a great read for anyone interested in reincarnation or Chinese history.

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