The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.

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