A ghost is this highly original novel’s second protagonist; its’ first is Wang, a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing who is the recipient of a series of mysterious letters purporting to be from a soul he has encountered in past lives. Barker weaves a seamless and gripping narrative between the modern-day and a dozen brilliantly realized pasts, from the brutal days of a sorceress, to the might of Genghis Khan, the giddying cruelty of the despotic Emperor Jaijing, a pirate ship during the Opium Wars, and the treacherous climate of the Cultural Revolution. Betrayal of one sort of another colours all of the stories, even if both souls feature as friends or lovers; at some point they are always at enmity.
This book is not for the squeamish. It portrays unimaginable, nightmarish cruelty, often and graphically. But the barbarity is not pointless. It shows the depths of horror human beings can sink to and how any one of us could be perpetrators of such horror, depending on when we are born and whom we are born to. Barker also suggests that evolution and transformation, however slight, requires some degree of awareness; though she leaves us very much in the dark as to whether any of her characters actually succeed in securing their personal freedom and reading their own destiny – a destiny that has already been spelt out in their incarnate lives.