Have you ever experienced deja vu? Do you feel a generalized anxiousness that something, somewhere is left unfinished or unconcluded? Like the characters in Susan Barker’s epic novel of obsession and betrayal, perhaps you are part of an intricate tapestry of woven energies and emotions appearing and reappearing on Earth. On Thursday, the New & Noteworthy Book Club is welcoming all lives and past life regressions to discuss The Incarnations.
Susan Barker, an East Londoner, is the daughter of a British father and Malaysian-Chinese mother and has tackled Asia before in her two previous novels Sayonara Barand The Orientalist and the Ghost. The Incarnations marks Barker’s third novel to be set in Asia.
While most works of fiction deal with a series of events in the lifetime of a character or characters,The Incarnationstackles events in the lifetime of a nation–by examining multiple lifetimes of the characters throughout the course of history. China is more than a setting, China becomes the true main character. Wang Jun’s profession is a taxi driver, one who travels roads and more roads, one who also briefly glimpses the unfiltered lives of others. What is a taxi driver but a courier of travellers, someone who witnesses the movement of others but drives the same roads over and over again? A taxi driver requires not only a familiarity, but also an intimacy with the geography of a city; And this book is about intimacy–uncomfortably so. Wang begins to receive anonymous letters in his cab from a person who claims to be his soul-mate, to have known him throughout five incarnations in his life.
The personal histories enclosed in these letters are full of suffering and violence. The two souls operate as bit players (often occupying the lowest strata of society: beggars, thieves, prostitutes, slaves, victims) during monumental moments in China’s history: the Ming dynasty, the Mongol invasion, the Cultural Revolution and rise of the Politburo. They are steamrolled by the events of history, casualties of destiny. The histories are so hard one wonders whether they are accurate or caricature: do they play on racist Western fears of China as a global power?
Sorceress Wu (undoubtedly my favorite character) from Wang’s first incarnation says, “Character determines destiny…not fate.” What, then, determines the destiny of a nation? How deep does obsession run? Is it soul-deep? Can obsession be immortal?
The New & Noteworthy Book Club is back! Join Jan here at BookPeople this Thursday at 7pm as we discussThe Incarnations, Susan Barker’s circular obsession with Asia.
New & Noteworthy Book Club recommendations: read Susan Barker’s The Incarnations if you liked Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. If you liked The Incarnations, check out Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates.
Don’t forget to join us in February when we discuss Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictional account of the assassination of Bob Marley.