With magical realism, generally you expect some rather happy-go-lucky magical elements along with a more disturbing storyline. For example, with one of my favorite authors, Alice Hoffman's work, generally the storyline could be strictly fictional, but the magical elements are what boost it out of the ordinary, enhancing the plot. With this story, the plot wouldn't work (at all) without the magical elements in place, unless you're a huge believer in past lives and reincarnation, in which case, disregard that assertion. The plot would not make sense in a strictly fictional setting of historical or contemporary, even in one of those odd, choppy, past-present overlap books. The Incarnations is dependent on a relationship between two souls throughout times and places, regardless of the shells those souls might be inhabiting.
This isn't one of those books you read because you are particularly in love with the characters- or at least, in my case it wasn't. I found myself none too sympathetic with Wang, even having seen his past incarnations. Every character in this book is decadently flawed, which is part of why I enjoyed it so much: I didn't enjoy the characters, but the flaws made them perilously mortal, so in a way, I did. I admired their humanity, frailty, and spirit, but it was difficult (if not impossible) to admire their actions.
The Plot (As Seen on Goodreads):
'Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen 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 “soulmate,” spanning one thousand 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 one thousand 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.'
Beyond the imperfections of the characters, what makes this book compelling is the breadth of history and settings it covers. Most of it is set in China, with a few possible outlying meanderings. The characters, or the soulmates, are constantly at odds with each other throughout their reincarnations and always seem to have this unusual sibling rivalry (as best I can describe that relationship) going on. In most books, I would assume all these short snippets of past lives would make the entire book feel like a bunch of short stories, but with this one, the characters seem themselves (and are themselves) in every stage of their past lives. You wouldn't think Wang the taxi driver would be like he is in his first incarnation, but put a soul through a different set of circumstances and I think the answer would be yes.
I think what shocked me (despite having been warned of it beforehand) was the sheer harshness of the content of this book. Although I was easily drawn in from the first page, after the first 50-ish pages I had to stop and read something else because it was so blatant and unabashed. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just that my review won't prepare you to read the book, even if I listed all the content I could think of, like with my A Game of Thrones review. It's like falling asleep snug in your bed and being doused at midnight with a bucket of ice cold water. This book isn't for those who are sensitive to adult content- even halfway through, I kept being surprised with the turns in the story. A lot of people refer to such things in fantasy as grimdark- well, this is grimdark magical realism.
The Incarnations is magical realism that expands its bounds to romp in both historical and contemporary settings. Don't let it's cover fool you into thinking it's like a million other books, because this one is definitely a special shade of gray, gray morality, that is. If you enjoy unusual books without characters that seem particularly heroic (in either the anti- or plain hero fashion), set in a familiar country that seems unfamiliar once you finish reading the book, The Incarnations may be just the book you're seeking.
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a magical realism with exquisitely flawed characters.
Content: Ages 18+ for all kinds of sexual content (rape, incest, castration, masturbation, and everything else you can dream up), violence, and the eating of strange meat.
Page Count: 371 pages in my hardcover edition