The Incarnations

Novelist Susan Barker ( has gained an appreciative readership over the last 10 years. Her third novel is about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and is interwoven with tales from the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium Wars, and the Cultural Revolution. Whilst writing The Incarnations Barker spent several years living in Beijing, researching modern and imperial China. The story concerns a letter from a mysterious stalker which upends the life of a Beijing taxi driver. It spans a thousand years of Chinese history and six lifetimes of betrayal.

The summary is as follows. Wang Jun, husband of Yida, father of Echo, is driving down Workers Stadium Road when the first note falls from the visor of his cab. “I watch you most days,” it reads. It is taunting in its anonymity: “Who are you?  you must be wondering. I am your soul mate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.” And so begins Wang’s unravelling. In the present, it’s 2008. Beijing is preparing for the Olympics, and Wang—distanced from his troubled family, mostly recovered from the nervous breakdown of his college years—has carved out something like contentment for himself: a beautiful wife, a beloved child, a job, if not the one he once seemed destined for. But this is not Wang’s first or only life, the letters explain. There have been other incarnations. He and the “soulmate” have, in fact, been intimately connected for more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Opium Wars to the Cultural Revolution. They have been father and illegitimate daughter, the product of incest and fellow courtesans to the sadistic Emperor Jiajing; schoolmates at the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls and Jurchen boys, enslaved by the Mongols. We are moved through Wang’s many pasts, all of them thrilling, gruesome, and tragic, and his increasingly desperate present.

You will encounter here a set of psychologically nuanced characters. Delivered with a sharp wit and a dark humour you will enjoy a book which is also a seriously moving read. If you do remember any of your own previous lives, there’s something I’ve long wanted to know. Did William Wallace personally plunge his sword through the heart of the wicked English sheriff Hesselrigg at Lanark Castle in 1297?


Enquire at your local library or consult for further bibliographic detail.


496 pages in Black Swann

First published 2014

ISBN  978-1784160005


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Susan Barker

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