Review: The Incarnations

You know driver Wang. Everyone knows driver Wang. He’s that faceless person driving you to the address you’ve barked at him. Every now and then, he’ll bark back. The ticking of the meter, the honking of other cars, the stop-start whirring of sputtering engines ring in his ears all day long while he sits through countless frustrating traffic jams. He witnesses all kinds of passengers – the rich, the desperate, the love-struck, the angry.

That man in your peripheral vision – either blurred out by alcohol on the late night ride home or invisible as you stare down at your phone – is the protagonist and the antagonist in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. Through his seemingly insignificant, mediocre life, Barker takes the reader through thousands of years of Chinese history and for that reason the book has earned comparisons to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Driver Wang is the sixth incarnation of his soul that has lived through and evolved with China’s tumultuous past, starting from the Tang Dynasty in AD 632. Each one of Driver Wang’s lives is entwined with that of his soul mate who takes up various different roles; the two arrive into the world either as mother and son, two slaves, two concubines, a colonizer and a colonized or even as a Cultural Revolution Red Guard and a ‘rightist.’ Each time, explains his soul mate, “fate sets us against each other. Fate has us brawling, red in tooth and claw. Fate condemns us to bring about the other’s downfall. To blaze like fiery meteors as we crash into each other’s stratosphere, then incinerate to heat and dust.”

In this life, Wang lives in modern-day Beijing in the midst of systematic preparations for the 2008 Olympics. A grim Beijing that is consumed by its own ambition and materialism, dotted with “corporate monoliths of glass and steel” and suffocating “under the haze of pollutants.” It is a city where “the have-nots scrabble over the scraps of the haves.”

He is married to Yida and together they have a daughter, Echo. One cold winter’s day, Wang receives an anonymous letter with the sole purpose of enlightening him about his past lives and thus begins the kaleidoscopic saga.

Throughout the book, Barker changes gears many times - from first person to second, from magic realism to pure fantasy. She jumps back and forth in time with the ease of a Chinese Olympic gymnast and yet she manages to maintain a linear chronological coherent storyline for Wang’s current avatar, taking the reader deeper into his current life and then arriving at an electrifying crescendo when the two souls brush past each other, perhaps for the last time (that’s left to the reader’s imagination).

Wang’s life is mundane and gloomy; he is living the life of a gestating, belching human. To his ethereal soul mate, his family is merely “cages of ribs rising and falling, as lungs inflate and deflate. Eyelids palpitating with the stimuli of dreams. Three separate minds processing the day’s events. Three warm-blooded mammalian bodies at rest, regenerating cell by cell.” His wife, Yida, is no better than a blood-sucking “parasite” who is only “hastening” the demise of Wang’s life. 

That is juxtaposed with the romanticized stories of his past where the meeting of the two souls always has much more passion, substance and weight, even if their encounters have brutal endings. During the Jin Dynasty, for example, they are both slaves and Wang is the braver of the two – street-smart yet principled – fighting for their survival. In the Ming Dynasty they are both Emperor Jiajing’s concubines plotting to end his tyranny. During the Cultural Revolution, both souls are consumed by the whirlwind of confusion that grips the population at the time yet both remain mindful of the dangers ahead.

The monotony of Wang’s life as a taxi driver compared with the fantastical, often times chaotic nature of his previous, more purposeful lives bring up questions of fate and destiny. Is there such a thing as a soul mate? What happens if you take one wrong turn and do not meet them? Do we choose the turns we take? Are we drivers or passengers? And which is the better of the two? The book echoes the very question Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children succinctly put forward: “where lies optimism? In fate or in chaos?”

As with Midnight’s Children, Barker also casts doubts on the narrator, forcing the reader to question whether there is any truth in the recollections or if the entire story is a simple product of a mind gone askew. Both versions of the story could hold true, and hints for both sides are cleverly hidden throughout the book.

After chapters of build up and thrilling suspense, The Incarnations eventually delivers a satisfying conclusion, a cathartic release that pleases and saddens at the same time. It also comes full circle as the enlightening letters addressed to Driver Wang end up in someone else’s hands leaving the reader with plenty of space for their imaginations to run wild. The book is an incredible feat of creative literary mastery making it extremely difficult to put down, its premise extremely difficult to shake off.

This is Susan Barker’s third novel published by Doubleday. Grab a copy of the book here.