It all starts with a strange letter left for a Beijing cabdriver, tucked away in the sun visor of his taxi. In the months just before the 2008 Summer Olympics, Wang Jun is living with his wife and daughter — but the message, and those that follow, quickly tangle that quiet life in complications.
"The letter writer states that Wang has had several past lives, and the letter writer has known Wang in each of his past incarnations," author Susan Barker says of the opening to her new novel. "The letter writer is Wang's past-life biographer, and it's their duty to reacquaint him with his past incarnations."
So begins The Incarnations — and the story soon blooms into all the lives Wang once lived: as a student during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, a slave of Ghengis Khan's Mongols, a eunuch, a fisherboy, even a concubine under the Ming Dynasty.
But it's not just Wang's life that comes to light in these tellings. He shares a complex bond with the letter writer, which seems to change with every lifetime, defined at times by lust, incest and murder.
"Although they're soul mates in the very literal sense, and in some past lives they even love each other," Barker says, "they often come into conflict with each other because of these innate characteristics — such as the will to dominate, possessiveness, envy, wrath — that recur in them life after life, that causes them to sometimes behave recklessly and sabotage their relationship."
And all the while, this tortuous relationship unfolds amid a number of notable moments in China's past and present. To craft this vast historical scope, Barker says she did plenty of research.
"My process for determining which areas I'd write about was to read history books that just gave a really broad overview of Chinese history," Barker says. "And when I came across a historical figure or historical incident that was especially interesting to me, ideas for characters and stories would surface."
Barker also drew from the experiences she had while living in Beijing herself. As the city prepared to host the Summer Games, she wandered her neighborhood with a notebook, jotting down observations of the pre-Olympic atmosphere — which she says found their way into the book.
But her novel also offered her a means of understanding her own family's past. She says her grandfather had been from South China before he left for Malaysia just before World War II. "I wanted to learn more about the history of the country of my ancestors," she says.
"I knew I wanted a narrative set in contemporary Beijing; I was really interested in the effect of the rapid social and economic change on the ordinary citizens in China. But I also wanted to interweave into the main narrative historical stories."
Reincarnation, with its generational leaps, ultimately allowed her a way to fit both of these interests — the present and the past — in one novel.