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.
OMG I’ve had an ARC of this for ages and I don’t think I realized it was translated, I never even considered it for WIT Month. That’s a shame that it underwhelms as a thriller and literary novel though, I’ve read a few too many of those lately.
I didn’t realise it was translated when I requested it either! (Kind of hits home how often translators get shafted by publishers, doesn’t it? 💁🏻♂️) It was still a solid, swift read; I just wish it hadn’t been pushed as a thriller as much as it was. Would love to know your thoughts 👀
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Literary thrillers is such an interesting genre (is it a genre?) I do see what you mean about being underwhelming on both fronts, though. Do you have any good recommendations? I am probably not going to pick up The Secret Talker…
Long Bright River by Liz Moore, Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, The Collector by John Fowles, The Body Lies by Jo Baker, & Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land all spring to mind 📚😊
Great, thanks so much, I will look into these!
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I DNF’ed this book a while back, I just wasn’t crazy about the writing style. I think that Asian books that are translated into English have a certain vibe and they don’t always work for me. Great review! 🙂
Thank you! I know what you mean; there’s often a certain “coldness” to contemporary Asian lit, if that’s the right word 😅 It can leave you feeling held at a bit of a distance sometimes.