Published by Touchstone on August 18th 2015
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When Wang, a Beijing taxi driver, opens the visor in his cab, he stumbles upon a mysterious letter addressed to him from someone claiming to be his soulmate. Over the next several weeks, more letters pour in, detailing the many lives he shared with his soulmate: a starving slave fleeing the Mongols, one of many imperial concubines, a trader tied up in the Opium Wars. Though Wang doubts the authenticity of the letters, he can’t help but feel increasing paranoia over the sense that he is being watched and followed.
With comparisons to Midnight’s Children and David Mitchell, I went into The Incarnations with high expectations for an intricate, deeply developed story that may not have been fair. The concept is certainly intriguing, as it blends the past and present with an underlying mystery. Unfortunately, that mystery—the unknown author of the letters—doesn’t dig quite as deep as I had hoped, and feels much more like a simple alternating narrative than a tangled tale across time.
Early on, I noticed an odd, slightly rigid feel in the novel’s writing. It was difficult to place, but so many sentences lacked fluidity. By the time I finished, I realized the book felt like it had been translated—with that unmistakable sense of misplaced words, but used as a stylistic choice that didn’t quite work. Though Susan Barker is clearly talented, The Incarnations fell a few steps short in executing her strong, visionary idea.