BOOK REVIEW: The Incarnations by Susan Barker. An interstitial epic set in China

The IncarnationsThe Incarnations by Susan Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spanning over 1000 years, The Incarnations starts in contemporary China and follows the life of a young taxi driver and his family. Wang Jun is the son of a former Maoist official whose mental illness and bisexuality estranges him from his already cold father and his manipulative stepmother. Wang Jun is married to a massage therapist and has a 10 year old daughter who aspires to be a comic book artist. The family lives in abject poverty, a stark contrast from the relative opulence of his upbringing. Wang Jun begins receiving anonymous letters addressed to him that recount in vivid detail the past lives he and the letter writer have lived, starting from the Bronze Age and up to and including the Cultural Revolution. The appearance of the letters begins to intrude into his family life in unexpected ways.
The prose style of the anonymous letters, addressed in the second person, are rich, (homo)erotic and flavored with folklore as well as historical accuracy. The contemporary scenes are beautiful rendered, full of carefully crafted characters and emotionally resonant vignettes. There is a wonderful tension between the modes of storytelling —psychologically acute portraiture and the epic, tall-tale style of the letters. This is an uncategorizable novel—historical and contemporary, magical and mundane.

BOOK IMPRESSION: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a historical novel that reads like a classic boy’s adventure novel. It’s full of seafaring adventure and written in an antiquated poetic prose, reminiscent of Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Jamrach

After an encounter with a tiger in the streets of London, circa 1880s, young Jaffy finds himself forever linked with naturalist and exotic pet dealer Charles Jamrach (a real life person). Jaffy starts as an employee of Jamrach, mostly mucking stables and caring for the wild creatures in the shop. Eventually, he signs up for mission to collect a Komodo Dragon for one of Jamrach’s clients. The novel mostly follows the events of that voyage, which range from wonder to pure terror. The novel almost becomes a literary horror novel, after some serious mood whiplash.

Birch captures Jaffy’s first person narrative perfectly. The sights and smells of London and the sea come vividly and sensually to life. While the secondary characters are kind of flat, it is more than made up for by richly descriptive world-building Birch does. The book maintains the sense of wonder you get from classic seafaring adventure texts.