Review of The Incarntations – Susan Barker

Posted: October 21, 2014 in general fiction, Review
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the incarnations

***3 out of 5 stars

Asked to review Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, I jumped at the opportunity. English-Chinese literature, that is English language studies of Chinese culture, by writers such as Amy Tan, Pearl Buck, Jung Chang, Xue Xinran, and New Zealand’s own Suzanne Gee and Eva Wong Ng, have always intrigued me. And since The Incarnations was written by a writer who, like myself, has a Chinese mother and European father, I was even more compelled. How would Barker’s perceptions of Chinese culture compare to my own? The only way to find out was to dive right in.

The Incarnations’ primary overarching story is set in Beijing in 2008. Amid the frenzy of building, Olympic Security Volunteers spy on their neighbours, preparing the city to face the scrutiny of the world, but taxi driver Wang has other concerns. He has found a letter in the sunshade of his cab. Someone is watching him. Someone who claims to be his soul-mate, to have known him for over a thousand years. Other letters follow, relating Wang’s former lives, incarnations, in the Tang Dynasty; during the Mongol invasion; the Ming Dynasty; the Opium War; and finally the Cultural Revolution.

Writer-reviewer Chris Cleave describes The Incarnations as ‘wildly original’. Possibly. However, in my view, the novel’s structure is contrived. It is essentially a series of historical fiction pieces strung together using reincarnation—conveniently a Buddhist notion—as a plot device, in order to present those stories as a novel. Barker could just as easily have published this work as a collection short fiction without need for the disembodied souls, connected through all eternity by reincarnation, tying them together. The final twist of the ‘linking story’, intended to resolve the novel, seems, to me at least, too convenient and thus unsatisfying.

The Incarnations is an uncomfortable read, a novel which would normally would take me an evening or two to get through, took me ten full days to read. If I had been reading The Incarnations for myself, I would have put it down, but I had promised to review it, so I forced myself to finish. Why was it so hard? Because I am convinced other reviewers will hail this book as a literary masterpiece, and shower the writer with praise. Adam Johnson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2013, has already done so, calling it ‘the most extraordinary work of imagination you’ll read all year,’ while John Boyne say it is ‘erudite’ and ‘intriguing’. Yes, this is a well written book. There is no doubt that Barker’s imagery is stunning, provocative and hauntingly real. Nor can it be said that she neglected her research, spending four of the six years in which she wrote this novel living in Beijing itself, and some of that time in a Soviet-style apartment complex of Maizidan. Barker clearly knows her subject intimately. So why did I dislike this book so intently? Why did I find it superior and derisive? I believe it is the Eeyore nature of much of the English writing that exists about Chinese people, Chinese culture, and Chinese history. But whereas other writers offer a smidgen of hope, in the 1378 years spanned by her narrative, Barker has not pointed to a single moment of joy. All those years. Not one moment of joy. Jam-packed with rape, incest, torture, betrayal, murder and death, the novel is completely devoid of promise. Even the potential moments in which Barker’s central characters might find hope and redemption are tarnished with guilt, revenge, and treachery. Sure, all good literature requires conflict, yet Barker chose only to highlight the horror of her subject, making The Incarnations a bleak and deeply pejorative tale of China. It’s possible that the author is correct, that for those unfortunate enough to be Chinese, or indeed, to be reincarnated into Chinese culture, there is nothing at all of promise to look forward to there. For myself, I like to hope otherwise.


Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Lee


A four-time winner of Sir Julius Vogel Award, Lee Murray writes friction for children and adults. She lives in New Zealand with her husband and teenaged children.

Visit her website

A review of her YA novel Misplaced can be found here

Conclave, an anthology featuring her novella can be found here

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