The Incarnations by Susan Barker has been praised as China’s Midnight’s Children. I hate comparisons like that because it almost sets The Incarnations up for failure. Midnight’s Children was a game-changer for Indian literature in English, and in many ways put South Asian literature on the map. For years it was cited as the quintessential novel of India’s coming of age. The Incarnations, on the other hand, though a mighty book, is not forwarding the cause of Chinese literature per se, as Barker is a Brit of Malaysian-Chinese descent, and does not mark a moment in time when everything changed the way Midnight’s Children did.
Am I quibbling? Maybe. Regardless of The Incarnations‘ standing vis-a-vis Midnight’s Children, it is a really good novel and will surely garner at least a few major award nominations. Set in Beijing just before the 2008 Olympics, the novel follows the life of taxi driver Wang. Mysterious letters containing excerpts of his previous incarnations are left in his taxi. Are they a hoax? Is someone trying to blackmail him? As Wang seeks to solve the mystery, we are taken on a tour of various time periods of China’s history and the fraught relationship through many lifetimes that Wang has with whoever is leaving these letters.
Overall, while I enjoyed The Incarnations, I did find it a little unevenly written. The multiple narratives and time periods meant that there were some sections I adored and some that I struggled with. Though I usually stay away from deep historical fiction, the portions set in the distant past were some of my favorites. To me, that attests to Barker’s skill in weaving a captivating tale.
Who would like this book? Though The Incarnations can definitely be classified as a literary novel, I think it’s appeal will spread beyond that narrow definition. It is full of action and adventure, intrigue, passion and romance. It’s got something for everyone. It also gives a gentle lesson in China’s history by focusing in on various time periods. I do recommend it highly. It is honestly quite unlike any other book I’ve read set in China.
I would like to thank my friends at Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this book for review consideration.