(2014) Susan Barker, Doubleday, £14.99, hrdbk, 382pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52257-3
Susan Barker's novel is the product of several years residence in Beijing, researching China ancient and modern, and The Incarnations spans both, over nearly 1,400 years. Wang Jun, the central character, is a taxi driver in Beijing in 2008, before the Olympics, married with a daughter, not particularly successful in life, but holding his own despite a troubled past which includes a nervous breakdown and a homosexual affair during imprisonment in an asylum, to avoid embarrassing his wealthy father. The worse is now long over, as it seems. But he doesn't know the half of it more accurately, he doesn't know five-sixths of it.
Five years ago, as Founder of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, the late Prof. Archie Roy asked me, Why can't you accept the evidence for reincarnation? What are you afraid of? If the events of this book were real, they would provide an excellent answer and compelling reason to hope that he is wrong about it.
Unknown to himself, Wang Jun is in his sixth incarnation, and in the past he has been men, women and bisexual. In 'his' first life he was the eunuch son of a sorceress, whose refusal to acknowledge his prostitute daughter, whom he had already fathered upon his half-wit sister, brings about his death.
Yet father and daughter are inextricably linked. In their next life they are apprentice boys, captured by the Mongols in 1213, and again the daughter kills him before dying in the desert. Three centuries later, they are concubines in the Forbidden City, in a plot to murder the Emperor, but Wang betrays the daughter, who is executed. Next, as a pirate in the Opium War, and 'she' a male British hostage, he dies at 'her' hands after helping 'her' to escape. Next, as schoolgirls, they make a suicide pact during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. I'm afraid black humour made me think of Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter ('Every family has its ups and downs'), but there's no humour of any kind in Baxter's accounts. There's an echo of Shakespeare's 'seven ages of Man', except that until now, the protagonists have not been aware of their pasts.
The big difference this time is that Wang is making a life for himself, and the reincarnated daughter, who is aware of their past existences for the first time, can't bear to be excluded from it. She also has a detailed knowledge of Wang's current life, and is determined to destroy it so that they can be together. As her letters break up his marriage, Wang never awakens to knowledge of his past lives, and assumes from the detail of his immediate past that he's being blackmailed by his former homosexual lover, whom he kills, along with himself, after his wife throws him out.
This is not a supernatural novel: the mechanics of reincarnation are taken for granted, never explained. The only fantasy element is that the daughter's memories are reawakened by a magic potion, but Wang does not regain them even from the letters, and Barker creates a powerful tension between her desperation to be united with him and Wang's determination to cling on to what he has. We do learn who she is now, and how the circle is destined to close; I won't reveal it, but it has the inevitability of Shakespearian tragedy, and perhaps there is to be a 'seventh age of Man' in which it will all come right. After their cycles of betrayal and retaliation perhaps the soul-mates don't deserve unity as a reward, but they could be said to deserve it as a respite.
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