I loved the novel ‘The Orientalist and the Ghost’ by Susan Barker when I read it last year so I was keen to read her latest, published in 2015. ‘The Incarnations’ has a central spine of a story concerning taxi driver Wang and his relationships with members of his family including his wife and daughter and father and step- mother. Someone is leaving him strange messages in the form of written stories, though, and through these stories we learn a lot about Chinese history.
We know a few things from the start: Wang has fallen into the job of taxi driver and life is a bit of an effort for him; his relationships are all fraught; his early promise has not been realised. The messages discomfort him, not only because he doesn’t know who sent them but because they claim an intimacy he rejects.
Each ‘story’ told within the novel comes from a different era. We go from the Tang dynasty to the upheaval of the cultural revolution in the 60s. Each story is also about two people, how they meet and how they part. As the writer suggests to Driver Wang, he is one of the two. The writer is the other!
Finding out who the writer is occupies Wang’s time and contributes to his feelings of victim hood and, just like Wang, the reader is left guessing until the end. My knowledge of Chinese history needs increasing but the novel was engaging. I admire Susan Barker’s ambition and look forward to her next book.