Updated: Oct 21, 2020
2018 was the year I really returned to reading. Despite being a bookseller at a used book store for almost 5 years, despite being a (dropout) English major, despite being a voracious reader from childhood, ever since I entered adulthood I have struggled to maintain my appetite for reading. It can be so much easier to turn on Netflix after an exhausting shift at work or a day of way too much social interaction. If I picked up a book, I found my eyes drooping, barely into the first few paragraphs, falling asleep with the book open and guarding my heart but never entering my mind.
2018 changed something somehow. Perhaps it was the books I chose, perhaps it was my renewed energy toward Books & Cleverness. Whatever it was, I'm glad it happened.
So here it is: my favorite book of 2018 out of a year where there were so many to choose from - Susan Barker's The Incarnations.
Barker's novel explores reincarnation in an engrossing, violent way. The basic premise is this - there are two souls that have encountered each other through centuries of China's history, from the empirical ages to the Mongol conquest to communism's inception to present day. Barker introduces Wang, an early 30s taxi driver with a wife and daughter living a rather mundane life, until he finds a letter in his taxi from someone who claims to have known him in all his past lives. Wang is dubious at first, until the letters continue to come.
"No matter how dilapidated, scarred and mutilated your body, I have always found you beautiful, for it is the soul beneath I seek," the letter writer admits. Honestly, the main reason I bought this book is because I thought it would be a straightforward love story of past lives finding each other again and again and falling in love again and again.
This book is so much more than that childish fantasy I had at first wanted it to be. Sometimes the souls are enemies, sometimes lovers. Sometimes men, sometimes women. Sometimes parent and child. Sometimes savior and oftentimes killer. This in particular is what intrigued me the most - the violence in this book is so necessary, as in, none of it is gratuitous. It is as realistic in that regard as it can be. Every violent action has an equal cause, every betrayal justified. Pain is present in every story, rejection, hunger, shame. Spoiler alert, the amount of times the souls kill each other is astounding.
Is this book perfect? Of course not. Truth be told, some of the stories of the past lives are weaker than others, but overall each story is strong in its depictions, in its ability to make us feel. Barker clearly did her research because you never feel lost in the history - you know exactly where you are in time, in place.
The letter writer states, "To scatter beams of light on the darkness of your unknown past is my duty. For to have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are. To be only one-sixth alive." Discovering the letter writer's journey and identity is just as fascinating as one would expect. It is possible to be simultaneously revolted by and infatuated with it. And in the end, Barker drops a bomb so intense, it made me want to go back and immediately re-read the novel.
Read this book. Not because you're a fan of Chinese history or you believe in reincarnation. Read it because it is such a perfect example of fallible, oftentimes grotesque, oftentimes pitiful humanity.