Published in Great Britain in 2014; published by Touchstone on August 18, 2015
Wang Jun’s mother tells him that “being born into this world is hell” and that he will be “crushed with countless millions all your life long.” His father tells him, “Like mother, like son.” Who is Wang Jun? Even Wang Jun doesn’t know the answer. He is the product of a horrific childhood and, perhaps, of difficult lives that he experienced in earlier incarnations.
When taxi driver Wang Jun finds a letter above the visor in his taxi from a person who claims to be his soulmate, he complains to the police about a stalker. Subsequent letters tell Wang about the soulmate’s past incarnations, all involving relationships with someone who is presumably Wang, although in past lives Wang was not always a male. In between letters, we learn about Wang’s marriage, his child and his childhood, his confinement in a mental health institution and the friend who caused him to question his sexual identity. We later watch Wang confront a moral crisis as he tries to understand his needs and desires.
The background is China just before the Olympic Games, when the longstanding practice of spitting on the sidewalk drew government fines and meager efforts were made to quash obvious corruption. The clash between a controlling government and out-of-control free enterprise is depicted in small details that create a convincing setting.
The stories from the past draw upon key moments in Chinese history from the seventh century to the twentieth. Some are the stuff of myth and legend. Others have a more realistic feel, although even those are infused with spirits and visions. They are all fascinating, but the segment that takes place during Mao’s Cultural Revolution is the most affecting. It is a captivating piece of writing.
Back in the present, much of the story is driven by Wang’s assumptions about the identity of the letter writer, the impact of the letters on Wang, and the unfortunate actions he takes in response to them. That gives the novel the flavor of a mystery or a story of psychological suspense. There are also stories of unconventional relationships scattered through the novel, although they involve tragic love more than giddy romance.
The letter writer’s actual identity (at least, the most recent one) is surprising to both the reader and to Wang. Its revelation forces a reinterpretation of the earlier letters. The novel’s ending is powerful and unexpected. The Incarnations is, in short, a skillful tale that combines tragedy and humor, history and modernity, revealing the darkness and richness of China and the enduring nature of the human spirit -- even when the human has no desire to endure.