Back in 2010, I went on my first trip to China for a couple of weeks to stay with friends in Beijing and explore the countryside. I was fascinated by the huge amount of people, the crowded streets, the strangers who latched onto me and took photographs (being tall & bearded I really stood out), amazing monuments, smog-yellow sky, the evident disparity between the poor & wealthy and the sense of a civilization that was both ancient and newly made. All over Beijing construction was taking place. Jet-lagged at 3AM I sat looking out of the window of our high apartment at the construction workers out in the distance building more enormous towers and the sparks of their machinery shining in the night. It felt impossible to fully comprehend this enormous, diverse, beautiful, problematic, ever-changing country even if I were to spend the rest of my life there. One of the amazing things about Susan Barker’s novel “The Incarnations” is that she manages to compress selected events throughout China’s long history and run a string through them so you follow a sense of the country’s progression via uniquely personal perspectives. Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive account of China’s history. It’s more, as Barker writes: “The chained beast of history is breaking loose.” What this novel does is give the reader a sense of this country’s transformations and the way time has gradually shaped the complex national body that exists today.
Wang is a humble cab driver in Beijing trying to support his wife Yida and their adolescent daughter Echo. Yida works as a massage therapist (something which instantly connected me to her character since I do this as well). Wang unexpectedly receives strange letters from an anonymous writer who informs him they’ve known each other in several past lives. He’s given accounts of their different incarnations and the various dramatic experiences they’ve had together. Interspersed with these letters is the account of Wang’s own troubled past and strained circumstances. His eccentric mother was committed to a mental hospital when he was young. His tyrannical successful-in-business father is ashamed of him. His fantastically monstrous stepmother Lin Hong weaves a spider’s web around them all so that she finally rules the family. Wang has a troubled affair with a hairdresser named Zeng who was once his lover. Desperate to discover who is sending these letters to him, Wang’s life collapses into disorder as his past threatens to overwhelm him.
It feels like it should be too disruptive being jarred out of the story in the present to be drawn into entirely different stories about the past. But somehow they work as self contained tales that also illuminate aspects about the central characters involved. I think this is because they are narrated in the second person so the narrator is always speaking to “you.” This “you” is both a specific person from the past such as eunuch in an imperial palace in 632 AD, a crafty scarred slave named Tiger in 1213, a virginal concubine in 1542, a British cultural explorer in 1836 or a loyal Maoist of the School of Revolutionary Girls in 1966. But the “you” is also always Wang so it feels like the essence of this character is always with us as is the mysterious narrator who we don’t meet fully until the end of the book. It’s a clever narrative trick that Barker plays. As well as providing snapshots of great ages in China’s immense past it allows the author to play with notions of gender, sexuality and race. A single character can flip between being a young girl in one story to a middle-aged man in another story. As the genders of the narrator and Wang switch throughout the ages so do they engage in sexual relations with each other that are gay, lesbian and heterosexual. As I discussed in my thoughts on Ali Smith’s tremendous novel “Artful” (and other writings by Smith), when the second person is used in this way it creates a sort of utopian plain where conventional notions about identity can be deconstructed through the power of language. As far as I’m aware, other than Smith and Barker, only Virginia Woolf has done this as successfully in her radical novel “Orlando.” (Jeanette Winterson made a somewhat less successful attempt at this in her novel “Written on the Body”) But Barker doesn’t self-consciously transform our understanding of gender. Questions about the meaning of man/woman linger in the back of the reader’s mind as they are drawn into fantastically engaging individual stories presented throughout the novel.
Some of the most memorable and idiosyncratic characters in the novel appear in these stories which take place in the past. For instance, there is a fiercely feisty survivor sorceress, a bawdy whorehouse matron named Madam Plum Blossom, a sadistic Emperor named Jiajing, a rapist pirate ship captain and a merciless Red army interrogator named Long March. These stories are full of scandal, war, blood and sex which make them come vibrantly alive and allow the author to indulge in the richness of adventure which is a counterpoint to the more realistic recognizable environment found in Wang’s tribulations of the present time. In the story from the 1800s it’s stated “The Scourge was a black-hearted ship, and evil the stuff of everyday.” This is an example of how Barker conjures a mood and time period through her diverse use of language and narrative style not appropriate for the present day storyline. In this way the author shows a fantastic elasticity in her story telling ability to ground you in whatever period in history she takes you to next.
By giving us the stories of two characters that are reincarnated continuously throughout history, Barker creates an epically romantic tale. It’s as if the pair is destined to always be entangled with each other’s lives throughout history, but never peacefully come together because of the circumstances of whatever time they are born into. The anonymous narrator makes an observation about the nature of their relationship in a letter to Wang: “Fate sets us against each other… 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.” Rather than create a confusing jumble of personalities, the accumulation of all these individual lives the pair have lived build to a universal message about love and its deranged manifestations. “The Incarnations” is a daring, provocative and relentlessly entertaining novel.