Book Review: The Incarnations by Susan Barker.

“You don’t know it yet, but soon I will make you dream of me.”. | Photo by Goodreads.

A taxi driver husband (Wang Jun) who has a stalker hanging on to his coattails. A masseuse for a wife (Yida) whose hands provide pleasure of the flesh for a living. A daughter (Echo) who takes neither pride in her parents’ lives nor pleasure in her education. A father (Wang Hu) whose ego took a beating when he ended up semi-paralysed in a wheelchair, and a stepmother (Lin Hong) who thinks the world revolves around her. Who can forget the gay lover of the past (Zeng Yan) who thinks he can rescue depraved men suffering from their present existence as straight, married men. And then, there is the mother (supplied name Li Shuxiang; actual name Yi Moon) who never died, of course.

There were many layers in the story, more layers than a mille crepe cake. The book played with my subconscious and stirred my emotions in the deepest and darkest crevices of my mind. And when I resurfaced, I struggled to make sense of what I just read. The author must be pretty darn good in whipping my imagination into a mad frenzy.

Synopsis: The Incarnations

For those of you who have no idea what the book is all about, here’s a synopsis of it by Goodreads:

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

Sometimes, it takes me forever to finish a book. Other times, the average time spent reading a book is about fourteen days (two weeks). This time, the book was so captivating and alluring that it took me less than two weeks to complete. That’s because the story was so beguiling that I just had to keep calm and carry on reading until the end.

Twelve Days of Torture

It took me twelve days to learn that Wang Jun’s mother never died. She was someone else in the past, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, a mistress of a party official, and a false individual who was given identity papers by someone else just so she could have a second chance in life.

It took me twelve days to learn that every letter that Wang Jun had  received were actually dreams that his mother had when she was asleep, and documented when she was awake. That it wasn’t even Zeng Yan who was falsely accused of sending those letters, and wrongly murdered in an intentional car accident. I searched high and low for the stalker’s identity. There were many culprits who fit the bill of knowing who Wang Jun is now and what he was in the past.

But then it took me twelve days to learn that the Watcher had all this while been the one stalking the taxi driver, that the Watcher had returned from the dead and turned up at Apartment 404. Thankfully, the photos sent to his wife was by someone else entirely not related to his past and present lives.

Oh Lord, have mercy on my head. All the blood and gore, torture and rape. All the castrations and mutilations… All these things sent my imagination into a frenzy, constantly rolling and tossing the lines I’ve read into a mental cement mixer. My brain needs a break now from reading all these mind-blowing stories. This is worse than all the World War II books I’ve ever read! The story was so psychologically disturbing, so emotionally scarring. Yet, it felt very much like an illegal temptation that I was unable to stay away from.

Dreams and Reality…

But this only goes to show that dreams can be just as real as you make it to be. While most are fantasy and are a figment of one’s imagination (depending on how active your imagination is, of course!), some dreams can feel so real that you end up wondering whether you’re alive or not. I’ve had dreams before that were so real and when I woke up, I was quite confused. Was I in the real world or am I still asleep?

While the spine of the plot remains mostly shrouded in dreams, one has to understand that quite a number of references made by the author stem from real history dating back to the early dynasties, from the ‘Tang Dynasty to the Cultural Revolution‘ – The Guardian, as well as other eras like the ‘reign of the Mind Dynasty, the coming of the Mongols, and the rise of the Politburo‘ – Sunday Book Review.

Oh, and it turns out that the author, Susan Barker, was born to an English father and a Malaysian Chinese mother. How interesting.

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