Book Review :The Incarnations by Susan Barker

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As Wang Jun drives his taxi through the streets of Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, he reflects on how busy the city has become.

‘The rush-hour crowds disappear into the subway; the masses, shrieking into cell-phones, treading on heels and fighting their way through the scrum. Stalled in traffic, Wang watches them, his head throbbing with the engine. There’s no harmonious society, he thinks, only the chaos of people with crooked teeth and no manners, trampling on each other.’

Life in China has changed completely over his lifetime but Wang’s past is about to catch up with him.

Wang lives with his wife, Yida, and young daughter, Echo, in a cramped flat. He is virtually estranged from his father. Wang Hu was once a powerful party official but is now a helpless invalid cared for by the malicious Lin Hong, his former mistress but now his second wife.

Wang begins to find mysterious letters planted in his taxi cab. We are then taken on a journey from 7th Century  through the Opium Wars right up to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as the shadowy correspondent tells the tales of seemingly unrelated lives.

Wang Jun’s own tragic story following the death of his mother also unravels and he finds himself unable to to escape from his past and his first love.

This book was an unexpected delight. Barker offers us a window into what is still a closed world. Her picture of life in modern China is fascinating. Despite its nominal communism, the disparity between those who have and those who have nothing is wide and growing. Wang and his co-driver, Baldy Zhang, struggle to make a living , their flats are dingy and overcrowded whilst the new elite drive fast cars and live in opulent apartments.

‘The darkness and corruption is everywhere, at every level of society. Greed is the beating heart of our people, and morality is overruled by the worship of money. Anyone can be bought and sold, Driver Wang. Even your own wife.’

She also captures the arbitrary brutality of the Cultural Revolution with its Orwellian language and ferocious Red Guards spreading fear throughout the country.

 A third-year girl called Shaoli shrieks the headteacher’s crimes through a loud speaker: ‘Headteacher Yang Attempted to Overthrow the Communist Government and Take Over The Military! Headteacher Yang Attempted to Assassinate Chairman Mao!”

Headteacher Yang is stony faced and unrepentant. Shaoli calls over Teacher Wu and tells him to slap the head teacher. When he refuses a second year girl beats him with a broom.. They call over Teacher Zhao and, scared of being beaten too, she slaps Headteacher Yang to loud cheers. “Harder! Harder!’ shout their former former pupils. Shaoli orders Headteacher Yang and Teacher Zhao to knock heads, and they headbutt each other like rams. “Harder!” Shaoli shouts through the loudspeaker, like a ringmaster in a circus of humiliation and cruelty.

Keen to lead the Anti-black Gang Capitalist rally, you take the loudspeaker from Shaoli, punch your fist in the air and shout,”The iron fist of the proletariat will crush the enemies of Chairman Mao! Heads will roll! Blood will flow! But we will never let go of Mao Zedong Thought! Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!”

The Incarnations could have read like an informative and well researched history of China but nothing could be further from the truth. Barker has created a set of characters who jump off the page and Wang’s heartrending story is sensitively told. It is hard to say too much more without spoilers …….I definitely recommend reading it.

The Incarnations is published by Doubleday and thank you to Susan Barker for sending me a copy.

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