By Susan Barker — “A thousand years of obsession and betrayal,” says author Adam Johnson about this intricately plotted tale, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus prize for fiction. Author Barker has managed to create a multitude of compelling plots, drawing inspiration from the convoluted and violent history of China, all within one overarching framework.
The premise is that present-day Beijing taxi driver Wang is being watched by a first-person observer, who refers to the two of them as “you” and “I.” The narrator writes him a series of letters that purport to recount the driver’s previous lives—thus, the book’s title.
“As biographer of our past lives, I recount the ways we have known each other. The times we were friends and the times we were enemies.” Sometimes they were men, sometimes women, sometimes related, sometimes not, first one was older, then the other. They circle each other through time like dragons.
After each foray into the past, the narration returns briefly to the present and the insightful, often humorous portrayals of the puzzled driver, his wife and young daughter Echo, his stubborn father and seductive stepmother, and an old flame he’s reluctantly rekindled. The letters are too bizarre and at times too shameful to share, and they contribute in some part to deteriorating relations between Wang and his current contemporaries. So consumed by the past, he’s unable to see the present clearly.
Some of these past lives were plenty brutal too, especially the one where “you” were a beautiful young concubine in the court of a cruel and debauched emperor, and “I” an older concubine who thought she’d earned a place of respect. Perhaps because it was closest to our own time and can be viewed through a modern lens, the section that takes place during the Cultural Revolution was especially poignant.
Fascinated by historical China as I am, I enjoyed the novel’s subject and setting, as well as the high quality of its writing and its clever plot and subject matter. Even at the end, it had surprises in store.