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.
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
It starts with some strange letters left for a Beijing cab driver and slowly unravels into a tale of two souls bonded together through time. Susan Barker's novel, "The Incarnations," follows the two voices throughout Chinese history as they die, are reborn and come together in each lifetime. Susan Barker, welcome to the program.
SUSAN BARKER: Hi, it's great to be speaking with you.
VIGELAND: This is quite the complicated story.
BARKER: Right. It's set in Beijing 2008 in the months preceding the Olympics. And the main character is this taxi driver called Wang Jun who lives a quiet life in the east of the city with his wife and daughter, until one day, he finds in the sum visor of his taxi an anonymous letter. And in the letter the letter writer states Wang has had several past lives, and the letter writer has known Wang in each of his past incarnations.
And the letter writer is Wang's past life biographer. And it's their duty to reacquaint him with his past incarnations. So other letters follow recounting Wang's past lives as a eunuch during the Tang Dynasty, a slave during the invasion of Genghis Khan, a concubine during the Ming Dynasty, a fisher boy during the Opium War and a student during Chair Mao's Cultural Revolution. And in the letters, the letter writer also describes the nature of the relationship they had with Wang - in some cases, they're family, sometimes they're friends, sometimes they're lover, but the relationships are always very complex and conflicted.
VIGELAND: To put it mildly.
BARKER: (Laughter) yeah.
VIGELAND: I wonder if you could read an excerpt for us.
BARKER: Yes, sure. Let me see. (Reading) I stood on the curb and watched you drive away taxi driver Wang Jun, driver ID number 39449331 - careworn, a smoker of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes - the last in your chain of incarnations, like the others, selected by the accident of rebirth, the lottery of fate. Who are you, you must be wondering. I am your soul mate, your old friend, and I've come back to this city of 16 million in search of you.
VIGELAND: So we're starting here with the driver, and this unknown narrator, the watcher, who is basically stalking him - but this is not the beginning of these characters - these souls - who've just kind of dropped us right into their most recent incarnation. And even though these souls are bonded together, it's not exactly love that is creating that bond. There's a lot of violence in these stories. You know, it seems like this could easily have been written, you know, like a soul mate love story. But you've made it far more emotionally complex and very messy.
BARKER: Yes, although they're soul mates in a very literal sense and in some past lives they even love each other, they often come into conflict with each other because of these innate characteristics, such as the will to dominate, possessiveness and the wrath that recur in them life after life, that causes them to sometimes behave recklessly and to sabotage their relationship.
VIGELAND: Well, the historical scope of this book is truly breathtaking. Mongols, Ming Dynasty, Mao, modern-day polluted China - you basically plop your characters right down in the middle of really extraordinary times. How did you pick and choose?
BARKER: My process for determining which eras I'd write about was to just read history books that gave a really broad overview of Chinese history. And when I came across a historical figure or a historical incident that was especially interesting to me, ideas for characters and stories would surface.
VIGELAND: You've lived in China. Did that experience influence your writing on the country's history?
BARKER: It definitely influenced my writing on the contemporary China - contemporary Beijing. I moved there just before the Olympics, and a lot of the pre-Olympic atmosphere in my neighborhood found its way into the book. Down my street they were taking down lots of shops signs in Chinese and replacing them with bilingual signs for the tourists. And the neighborhood committee in my apartment complex - they're a group of elderly people who sort of monitor the comings and goings of the neighborhood - they started to wear these armbands saying Olympic Security Volunteers and carried out door-to-door checks. So that found its way into the book.
VIGELAND: Why did you choose to keep all the reincarnations within China?
BARKER: My grandfather was originally from the south of China before he emigrated to Malaysia pre-World War II. And I wanted to learn more about the history of the country of my ancestors. 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 ordinary citizens in China. But I also wanted to interweave into the main narrative historical stories. And after I'd been writing the book for a few months, I realized I could use reincarnation as a way - a narrative device to structure the novel.
VIGELAND: Susan Barker - her novel is called "The Incarnations," and she's been joining us from our studios in London. Susan, thank you so much.
BARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.