The Secret Talker: A Novel

Image of The Secret Talker: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 30, 2021
Reviewed by: 

“A masterful tale driven by Yan’s brisk pacing and evocative writing and details that pulse with truth.”

Somewhere in the middle reaches of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs there’s the deep desire to be understood. It might be manifested in friendships with those few people who have a preternatural awareness of what makes you tick. Or in the person you choose to spend your life with. Or a relationship you develop online, in which a mysterious combination of distance and intimacy leads you to share your darkest secrets with someone you’ve never actually met.

While these circumstances can be irresistible for many writers of psychological thrillers, they’re tapped especially well by Geling Yan in The Secret Talker. Page after page, the intrigue intensifies through clashes between Chinese and American culture and revelations about a woman haunted by harrowing events prior to her immigration to the U.S.

That woman, Hongmei, who’s apparently in her 20s, married an American college professor who helped her gradually escape a life controlled by government oppression. Her present life in an academic community in Northern California would appear to be idyllic given her middle-class comfort, the devotion of her husband, and her opportunities to earn an advanced degree.

Yet that external view is fragile cover for just barely repressed memories of trauma and psychological development stunted by time spent as a military intelligence officer in training. So when she begins receiving emails from a stranger who demonstrates piercing insights to her mental and emotional challenges, she’s compelled to respond.

Over the course of what feels like an online courtship, the author wisely chooses not to depict the actual email conversations, but to summarize them based on the visceral feelings they invoke in Hongmei: longing fostered by the intimate anonymity of the interactions. Unresolved anger unearthed by conversations about previous relationships. And a heightening sense that she’s is heading toward an inevitable liaison that could wreck her life.

It’s a masterful tale driven by Yan’s brisk pacing and evocative writing and details that pulse with truth that’s perhaps inspired by the novelist’s teenage years, when she served with the People’s Liberation Army as a dancer in an entertainment troupe. Among her many novels and short stories are The Banquet Bug (published in the UK as The Uninvited), The Lost Daughter of Happiness, and the short story collection White Snake and Other Stories.

With The Secret Talker, she’s a headliner in a range of culturally diverse novels published by HarperVia, described by the publisher as “an imprint dedicated to publishing extraordinary international voices, offering readers the chance to encounter other lives and other points of view via the language of the imagination.”

That’s a perfect description of this adventurous and emotionally engaging story, which ultimately unlocks the transformative power of listening and honesty for recovery and redemption from tribulations of the past.