On the first day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

incarnations

So here we are: my number one book, my favourite read of 2015, the one I’ve picked over all 40 (ish) others. This has been a lot more work than I’d planned and I’ll probably stick to my top five in future, to be honest, but I hope you’ve read about at least one book you might enjoy. Whichever book that might be, they’re all excellent.

But, in my humble opinion, Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is the best. At the very least, it’s the most expansive, ambitious, epic book on my list.

Wang Jun, a troubled Beijing taxi driver with a history of mental illness, is sleep walking through life, convincing himself daily that he is content with his lot – his work, his wife and daughter – against the backdrop of the 2008 Olympics. But his relatively mundane life is turned upside down by a mysterious letter found in his taxi cab, the writer of which purports to be his soul mate. This letter tells a brutal story, set in 632 AD, in which Sorceress Wu castrates her son, Bitter Root, and sells him to the emperor. Bitter Root, the writer insists, is Wang Jun’s first incarnation. Bitter Root’s daughter (conceived before the unfortunate events) is the writer’s first incarnation.

Four further letters follow, each detailing Wang Jun’s supposed previous incarnations during the most savage periods in China’s history – Ghengis Khan and the Mongols; the Ming dynasty; the Opium Wars; and the Cultural Revolution – and each identifying a shifting relationship between Wang Jun and the letters’ author that is always intense, always troubling. Through the ages, they are lovers and rivals, they are saviour and saved, murdered and murderer. They shift gender, sexuality, age and nationality. Their history is bloody and violent. But who is writing the letters? And are they really Wang Jun’s soul mate or are they playing a cruel trick on a vulnerable man?

As I write this plot summary, I’m in awe all over again of Barker’s ambition and the scope and reach of this wonderful but deeply unpleasant novel. The letters are like individual short stories, whole worlds captured and linked by the thread of Wang Jun’s contemporary story and, ultimately, his struggle to come to terms with his recent history.

To read this book is to go on a journey through China’s history and the mind of a haunted man. And yes, at the end of that journey, both Wang Jun and you, as reader, get to find out the identity of the letters’ author. And yes, it is a most satisfying twist.

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