The Secret Talker by Geling Yan
Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang
Published by HarperVia, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A good literary novel tends to wow with its linguistic prowess and the depth of its social commentary. A good thriller serves as a captivating page-turner that draws you in. When the two are brought together in perfect harmony, the effect can be fantastic. In many cases, however, aiming for a literary thriller dooms the book to underwhelm somewhat on both fronts; being neither thematically rich nor quite captivating enough to please lovers of either genre. Sadly, The Secret Talker feels like a prime example of this for me.
The concept is great. We follow Hongmei, a Chinese woman living in America, who finds herself drawn into an increasingly intimate and all-consuming correspondence with an anonymous stalker who seems to know her every move. Though undeniably creepy, their conversation brings to the fore how much her relationship with her husband is failing. As their conversation deepens, both Hongmei and her stalker feel increasingly drawn to each other; compelled to unpack long-held secrets on both sides.
While the stalker set-up will undoubtedly appeal to fans of a good thriller, the novel is in fact a largely character focussed look at relationships, communication, identity, and the need to feel seen and heard. There are a few twists peppered throughout (the most important of which I saw coming a mile off), and I was certainly intrigued throughout, but I did feel we were moving in circles at times.
Despite being hampered by this uneven tone and an occasionally confusing timeline, the book did keep me engaged. Its look at the anonymity of the internet and the thrill of the unknown worked well, and I’d be happy to see the author tackle similar themes within a framework that allowed for greater depth. Given the rise of technology and social media since the book’s original Chinese publication back in 2004, I think there’s lots she could draw on.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.