Hailed as "China's Midnight's Children" (The Independent), this "brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel" (Chris Cleave) is about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over 1,000 years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soul mate. Who are you? You must be wondering. I am your soul mate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of 16 million in search of you. So begins the first letter that falls into Wang's lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang's previous lives - from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution - bound to his mysterious "soul mate," spanning 1,000 years of betrayal and intrigue. As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him - someone who claims to have known him for over 1,000 years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer.... Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.
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This was one of those audiobooks that I might have enjoyed more if I had not been so annoyed by the narration. The parts read by the woman narrator were fine, but the man's quasi-robotic delivery and bizarre mispronunciation of simple, common words kept throwing me out of the story. He would also stress the wrong word in some sentences, leading to the occasionally hilarious unintended meaning.
Great, complex story, marred by horrible narration
So I'll be making sure to separate my thoughts of the actual book from the narration that it received via audio book. The book was narrated by two people. One was good, the other was horrible. The male narrator dictated everything, even emotions. Dialogue sounded comically robotic. "What. Do. You. Mean?" No emotion, inflection or tone to any of the characters that he portrayed. They all sounded like they were read from a script. Well..they technically were read from a script, but that shouldn't sound like it!
Anyway, despite this one narrators hack job, this book really satiated my love of loopy, cyclical plots. The ending really ties that knot together. In fact throughout the beginning of the novel, things seem very disjointed, unrelated, and happenstance. I was a bit worried that it wouldn't "close the loop" properly as I was expecting even. Even the tales of the incarnations bothered me a bit, which I'll explain later.
The book opens from the perspective of a Taxi driver, Wong, who seems to be a middle aged, down on his life, married Chinese fellow. His life isn't horrible, but underneath the surface, he just seems unhappy. We are given details of Wong's past, piecemeal. His own backstory come into sharper focus as the story progresses, and is masterfully interwoven with letters that he receives. So we get an effect that is allowing us to dig deeper into Wong's complicated past and those around him. (His wife,child, ailing father and MIA real mother, step mother, and mysterious 'friend' ) What's neat is that most of these characters all come into play through flashbacks that are a bit jarring at first, but help with the story. In the beginning, this was a hard juggling act. We have the main present day storyline, then flashbacks, from the present day Wong, then letters received by Wong, about the incarnations of previous lives.
In this way, the dual narration helped immensely since the narrator would be switched from male to female, whenever a letter was being read. This helped me personally keep up with the continuity of where I 'was'.
A big complaint of mine about the story is that each of the letters, which represents one of the reincarnations, provide what felt like seemingly forced sexual scenes. I have no problem in the slightest with having the romantic, love story that plays out throughout the ages. That's a great, romantic and beautiful idea. But to me, maybe due to the narration as well, it came off as false, forced, and faked. Most of the characters involved in these homosexual encounters are young kids, so I get that it's supposed to be sort of awkward and not very 'smooth', but the it just seemed un-necessarily added for certain stories. At least the actual sexual acts didn't need to be so blunt and in your face. Sometimes the subtle description would have been a better way to go.
That minor gripe, the story finishes with a very long telling of the Maoist, red China from the 50's and 60's. This, to me is the 'heaviest' of the stories, as it links past and present. Even though it's the longest story, it seems the most rushed! Large gaps in time are just skipped over. Years go back in between sentences, which always irks me. All of the characters are wrapped up in a climax that left me surprised, that I didn't see it coming sooner, which is always pleasant. And this one in a very cyclic nature.
The settings, and theme of all of the stories is China through different periods, which was interesting for me, since we don't get a lot of stories like this that deal with at least semi-accurate events. I haven't done my back ground research so I don't know how accurate the events portrayed here are. One of the stories, the Siegeing of the northern city of Zhongdu by the Mongols was hideously gruesome, and I unfortunately don't doubt it's accuracy considering it was at the hands of Ghengis Khan.
Anyway, I really enjoyed this story. There was nearly zero humor, it was one pretty depressing tale after the other, and we didn't really get 'closure' of the main character... Also from a purely American English speaking perspective, the names of all the characters are a bit hard to follow at first. Especially since I was listening to this, and couldn't see the names in print. It took me a while to sort out who was who...Despite all of that it was a good ride. The settings are vividly described, the characters are easy to feel for (which isn't easy to do) and I found myself hoping for the best for Wong and his family and hating his materialistic, selfish and self center step mother.