Questions for book-group discussion: Have you ever had the feeling that you recognized someone, but not from this life? Has a small child ever spooked you by earnestly alluding to a prior existence? Do you believe in the recycling of souls? Would you like to?
Wang Jun, the thirtysomething Beijing taxi driver at the turbulent center of Susan Barker's swirling, suspenseful novel, "The Incarnations," has been a human being five times before — or so insists the author of the anonymous letters that have begun appearing in his cab.
The writer claims to be Wang's soul mate, chronicling for him the history they've shared, on and off, for more than 1,300 years. "To scatter beams of light on the darkness of your unknown past is my duty. For to have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are."
The year is 2008, and all over traffic-choked Beijing, construction surges in preparation for the Olympics, a chance to display to the world the magnificence of contemporary China. Wang's life, however, is markedly lacking in splendor. Though he grew up privileged, the son of a wealthy Communist Party official, he rejected that ease as a young man. Now he and his wife, Yida, a masseuse, scramble in a quotidian way to provide for themselves and their clever 8-year-old daughter, Echo.
"I watch you most days," the jealous letter writer tells Wang, yet it's Echo who senses the presence of someone she calls the Watcher: a ghost, she says, who stalks her everywhere. The letters are an elaborate torment, but the danger to his child genuinely frightens Wang. He suspects his former lover, Zeng Yan, is responsible for both. A once-unstable man, Zeng is still very much alive — a ghost only in that he has haunted Wang's heart for the 10 years since they parted.
A decade is nothing, of course, compared with an entwinement stretching back to the Tang Dynasty. In that brutal seventh-century life, detailed to him in a letter, Wang is Bitter Root, the son of a sorceress who sells sham cures to the people of Kill the Barbarians Village. After Bitter Root rapes and impregnates his sister, the sorceress grabs a knife, turns him into a eunuch, then sends her castrated boy as a gift to the emperor.
Squeamish? This is not the book for you.
Anyway: The letter writer is the eunuch's daughter, and she seeks him out after she grows up and becomes a courtesan. The reunion doesn't go well.
That, actually, is an intriguing thing about Wang's various incarnations — as Tiger, a 13th-century slave to the Mongol conquerors; Bamboo, a concubine in the Forbidden City during the Ming Dynasty; Tom, a 19th-century Briton captured by Chinese pirates; and Liya, the teenage daughter of a Party official in the rabid early days of the Cultural Revolution.
The letter writer is right there with Wang — as Turnip, a smitten fellow slave; Swallow, a more senior concubine; Ah Qin, a captured fisherboy; Moon, an ostracized classmate — yet there is at least as much betrayal as devotion between them, and not one ending that might be construed as happy for both.
They are drawn to each other, and several of these duos have excellent sex, but this is no romantic view of human history, or Chinese history, or of what it means to inhabit a body. Rape is abundant, as are lice. People reek and hunger and carve each other up, sometimes out of cruelty, occasionally, in famine, for food. The past is a bloody, roiling, festering pit of violence and want, and humans need little inducement to abandon compassion if it will help them to survive.
Barker writes with a comfortable colloquialism that sometimes trades vividness for cliché, but she has smartly structured this intricate tale, and its mystery pulls us forward: Who is the Watcher?What is really going on? How much damage will Wang do to his current life before we find out?
The novel gains in power and polish as it progresses. By the time I reached the chilling young zealots of the Cultural Revolution, close to the end, I found myself stalling — prolonging suspense to savor the story of Liya, besotted with Moon and ashamed of her, too.
Wang's soul is a palimpsest. Each layer makes it more entrancing.
By Susan Barker. Touchstone, 371 pp., $26.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.