Category Archives: Black Swan Books

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next eight weeks I am going to be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. First up is Susan Barker’s stunning third novel The Incarnations which in just under 500 pages takes you on an epic journey from China in 2008, to five points in its history, going as far back as AD 632 and tells of two souls destined to keep meeting. Intrigued? You should be…

9781784160005

Transworld Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 477 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Beijing, 2008 and taxi driver Wang has started to receive mysterious and strange letters from someone who claims to have known Wang and been a part of his world not only in this life but also in five other previous lives throughout China’s dynasties. Worryingly this stranger seems to have a detailed view about his life in the present, not only where he lives with his wife and daughter, but also some of the secrets that Wang has been trying to keep hidden. As Wang reads through the letters and the many supposed lives he has already lived, his life in the here and now starts to change and unravel all at once. This may be a horrendous time for Wang yet it is a wonderful time for us readers as we get sent into China’s many pasts, and the stories that are revealed there, and also have the added thrill of following Wang as he tries to discover the (actually very creepy) ‘Watcher’ and just what it is that they want.

I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

What is quite hard to describe unless you have read the book yourself (and then it is still quite tricky) is how many wonderful layers Barker creates in The Incarnations. We have Beijing in 2008 as it gears up to the Olympics, where Wang and his family live a hand to mouth existence despite his father and (deliciously wicked) step mother living in the lap of luxury not far away, another layer being the mystery as to why Wang has shunned their life and indeed has a tempestuous relationship with them. We also have the layers of Wang’s past from his childhood, teens, twenties and early thirties and some of the stories he has kept hidden from those he loves as well as he can. The way this all unfolds creates a fascinating view of modern China and various parts of its society, from the noodle bars on the streets to the luxury penthouses above.

If that wasn’t a fictional feast enough we have the addition five layers of time periods over 1,000 years of China’s history, where in each we get a very different story and so try and work out how the two souls the Watcher claims to be themselves and Wang will find each other. We have peasants and sorceresses in the Tang Dynasty, AD 632; two escapees in the desert during the Jin Dynasty, 1213; a group of the Emperor’s tortured and mutilated concubines in the Ming Dynasty, 1542; sailors and pirates in the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and a group of reactionary school girls in the People’s Republic of China, 1966. I told you it was a feast, and if you think this all sounds terribly confusing  I promise you it’s not, its crafted brilliantly, you’ll gulp it all down and be enamoured with every new cast of characters you meet whatever their intentions and tales.

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, remove the silver-domed plate lids and carry them away. What a feast! The Emperor licks his lips and points at a dish of noodles. The Eunuch Food-taster cries, ‘Appraising the viands!’ and pincers some dangling threads of noodles with his chopsticks. The Eunuch Food-taster nibbles, nods that the noodles are unpoisoned, and the Emperor proceeds to eat. Concubine What’s Her Name hovers out of eye shot, at the shoulder of His Majesty’s fox-fur-trimmed robes. Concubine Meek and Timid. Oh how ashamed of her I am. But to behave in any other manner is to provoke his wrath. To dine with the Emperor Jiajing is not to eat oneself but to stand beside him, encouraging him and praising him for every mouthful he masticates. A sip of elk-horn and deer-penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, O Emperor of Ten Thousand Years!’

What is incredible is that in each of the periods of China’s history we visit we are completely engulfed, so vivid is Barker’s description. It takes a considerable amount of work for any author to build a modern world or a single historical one, let alone a modern one and five more in the past that are each fully formed and capture you in their detail. Through her prose Barker treats you to the smells, tastes, voices and senses of that time; from the food that they eat, the clothes they wear and the sex they have (this is a very sensual book in many ways) to the politics of the time or in many cases the dictatorships. I was completely bowled over by this and revelled in the descriptions that we are treated to, be it the darker sides of life in each time or the more titillating.

‘Impoliteness!’ she scolds. ‘One mustn’t spit the Jade Liquor as though it scalds the tongue. One must swallow and smile.’ After twenty years of whoredom, Madam Plum Blossom’s knowledge is as boundless as the sea. ‘Men have all sorts of peccadilloes,’ she tells me. ‘Some men like to Penetrate the Red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the Jade Watering Spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called Pushing the Boat Upstream.’

That paragraph not only shows that what I said about there being sex in the book is true, it also highlights how playful, funny and entertaining The Incarnations often is. Sex is not in the book simply for the sake of it however. It is often used to highlight characters behaviour, as a powerful tool or weapon when needed or most importantly to discuss sexuality. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the novels main themes, as is the metaphor of sexuality being or equalling freedom for many. Sexuality also links in with one of the other main themes of the novel which is love in all its forms. From familial to passionate, from friendship to that fine line of hatred and of course the question of soul mates.

Early in The Incarnations we are told that ‘History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck… But you pretend not to hear.’  I find the idea of how history and past lives, be they linked to ours or not (to our knowledge at least) can form us even in ways we aren’t aware of in the slightest. I think you would be hard pushed to find a book that looks at this idea in depth in a more wonderfully written or inventive way; especially one with such a sense of gusto, adventure and storytelling.

I was mesmerised by The Incarnations and loved it from start to finish. Barkers’ writing has a sense of darkness, comedy, history and adventure whilst also being a thought provoking, intelligent and sophisticated novel too. It is also one of those brilliant instances where it completely transfixes you in a fictional world and then provides you with an urge to go and read more. I now want to go off and not only read Susan Barker’s earlier two novels, I also want to dig out some Murakami (did I mention there were grooms turned into chickens and ghosts in this book?) and go and find lots of books on China’s history. If you have been pondering what to read next, look no further than this book.

Has anyone else read The Incarnations or indeed any of Susan’s earlier novels? I would love to hear your thoughts on them if so. I would also love any recommendations on (entertaining and insightful) books on China’s history too please thank you very much.

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Filed under Black Swan Books, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Susan Barker, Transworld Publishing

Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

If you haven’t read any of the Tales of the City series then could you leave this post, turn your computer off and run to the nearest bookshop, buy it, curl up with it and then come back when you are sorry that you have missed such utter joys until this day. Seriously, jog on, I won’t speak to you until you have. If you are one of those people who is clearly very naughty and is reading on, or if you have read them and you are wishing I would just get on with it, let me tell you that I think the Tales of the City books are not only my very favourite series but some of my very favourite books.

Returning to them is always an absolute joy, I feel I have lived with these characters on 28 Barbary Lane for all my life – impossible I know but that is how much they have meant to me since way back when and how real they have become in my mind. Knowing that there was a new one coming out, The Days of Anna Madrigal, I decided to re-read them all again after the new year only I realised that I always seem to re-read the first three (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City) and then stop so knowing them inside and out (in a gorgeous and familiar way) I decided to start with book four in the series Babycakes (possibly after watching the first three’s adaptations on DVD first, don’t judge me they are almost as good as the first), and once again was lost in that familiar world of Mouse, Mary Ann and Mrs Madrigal once again. Note: Now if you haven’t read this series and still haven’t gone, right this minute, to buy them all this is your last chance as being the fourth in the series I may have to give some things away. You’ve been warned.

Black Swan Books, 1984 (2010 edition), paperback, 320 pages, taken from my own shelves

Babycakes opens with none other than The Queen as she arrives in San Francisco on a trip around America. The city is abuzz with the news and Mary Ann Singleton, now a TV reporter, is out in her very best hat (only befitting if you are even talking about The Queen on the telly, let alone being in her company) and trying to get a big story from it all. Her husband Brian is still waiting in a restaurant and trying to deal with career focused Mary Ann when really what he wants is a pregnant Mary Ann who he will happily become a house husband to. Michael ‘Mouse’ is also feeling rather lost and grieving since the death of his lover Jon. While all of The Castro is focused on the arrival of ‘another’ Queen in town, they are avoiding the fact that HIV and Aids are becoming a big problem in the city. Michael however knows about it all too well and feels the need to escape which, with the help of Mrs Madrigal and a runaway seaman, he does and flies to London where he finds a familiar face in a very unfamiliar world, though this familiar face doesn’t want to be discovered…

What I loved about Babycakes, and what I invariably love about every Tales of the City and Armistead Maupin book, is how on first glances these are a series of charming tales about a whole host of wonderful, diverse and colourful characters. Yet they also cleverly look at the much darker side of life and somehow make it more digestible without being any the less thought provoking or emotional. In Babycakes there are four main themes going on in the background; the first is subject of men who really want to be dads and stay at home husbands (which people still find an unusual set up), racism, grief and the arrival of HIV and Aids onto the gay scene in the early 1980’s.

The other Michael’s face registered gratitude, then confusion, then something akin to discomfort. Michael knew what he was wondering. ‘I don’t have it,’ he added. I am just a volunteer who answers the phones.’
A long silence followed. When the waiter finally spoke, his voice was much more subdued. ‘My ex-lover’s lover died of it last month.’
An expression of sympathy seemed somehow inappropriate, so Michael merely nodded.
‘It really scares me,’ said the waiter. ‘I’ve given up Folsom Street completely. I only go to the sweater bars now.’
Michael would have told him that the disease was no respecter of cashmere, but his nerves were too shot for another counselling session. He had already spent five hours talking to people who had been rejected by their lovers, evicted by their landlords, and refused admission to local hospitals. Just for tonight, he wanted to forget.’

These moments in Babycakes really hit home, probably because of all the lighter and more quirky stories around them, which I think Maupin does brilliantly as they stand out all the darker. They are also done with great sensitivity and it is this duality, and was also done marvellously when dealing with the Jonestown Massacre in Further Tales of the City, which makes the series so important as well as being so compelling to read. I can’t really say any more than that, I just really love them.

Since reading Babycakes, just before I started Significant Others, I discovered that The Days of Anna Madrigal will be the finale to the whole series. I won’t lie, having loved these books since I was a teenager (they were like a godsend to show there were more diverse/different people out there in the world) my stomach almost dropped out with horror. So I have decided that I will save the fifth to eighth book re-reads until after I have read the finale and have them to go back to afterwards. I have a feeling there will be tears for all sorts of reasons. I wonder if when I meet Armistead next week (for You Wrote The Book, if any of you have questions let me know) I could slip him a £5 note to get him to write just a few more? Ha!

For a slightly less rambling and emotional response to Babycakes visit A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook. Who else has read the Tales of the City series, be they in your formative years or not, and which has been your favourite along the way? Can you believe that it is really coming to an end? If you haven’t read them yet, then what on earth are you still doing reading this post? Get on with your bothers and down to a bookshop/library right this minute!

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Black Swan Books, Books of 2014, Review, Transworld Publishing