“The Secret Talker” by Yan Geling

The Secret Talker, Geling Yan, Jeremy Tiang (trans) (HarperVia, May 2021) The Secret Talker, Geling Yan, Jeremy Tiang (trans) (HarperVia, May 2021)

Qiao Hongmei is being stalked over e-mail and she’s not sure what to think about it. Tucked away in the comforts of her northern California college town, she receives e-mails from an unnamed sender and finds herself drawn in even as the messages become creepier and creepier. Yan Geling’s new novel, The Secret Talker, is a short psychological thriller that looks into the many ways marriages can go wrong.

The e-mails begin after Hongmei and her husband Glen return home from dinner at a local restaurant. The stranger recalls minute details of her wardrobe, where she was sitting in the restaurant, and how she flinched when her husband gently touched her cheek after helping her with her coat. Although most people would call the police after receiving such a message, Hongmei is intrigued.


This stranger evidently had taken note of her every move and gesture the night before. His tone was a little presumptuous, but she liked his writing style, almost like a blend of Neil Gaiman and Emily Brontë.


She soon falls into his trap, awaiting his next e-mail and growing anxious when he goes days without writing. Sometimes she changes her e-mail address to rid herself of this stress, but he always finds her new one and gives her more reason to believe he’s watching her every move. She even recruits her friend, Nini, to e-mail the stalker and learn more about him. It doesn’t work. At some point, Hongmei begins to think that this mysterious person is a woman instead of a man, but all clues wind up at the same dead-end.

One of the reasons Hongmei enjoys these chats with the stranger is that she feels free for the first time to discuss her family’s background going back to 1937 when Japanese troops stormed into her village, not too far from Nanking, and massacred all the girls in town. This history was one of the reasons she was so determined to leave, even if to Beijing for university in the 1980s. Once she starts writing to the stranger about her village, she views it in a new light.


She’s never imagined she could be so proud of her village. These more than two hundred young women who’d given up their lives had not affected her so much till this moment, nor had she found their sacrifice this meaningful. Was she endowing them with significance? Or had this already been present but she’d only just discovered it?


She never felt comfortable telling her husband Glen about this history, nor her first husband, a man she left when she met Glen in Beijing a decade before.

Her marriage to Glen isn’t terrible, but they don’t communicate well. He’s a professor at the university in town and she’s a doctoral student, so their schedules often take them outside their apartment. But her first marriage also seemed to be happy and without problems, that is until she met Glen. Now she feels like she’s repeating the same pattern with the internet guy.


Before the secret talker showed up, before she’d known there was an intelligent person in the world who understood her, she’d never realized what torture it was not to be able to communicate


The story has a Hitchcockian feel, down to its northern California setting. It’s not terribly difficult to figure out the stranger’s identity, but Yan’s pacing keeps the pages turning. In this day and age, Hongmei continuing to correspond with this strange person might come across as a bit frustrating; that it does not is in part due to the expertise of translator Jeremy Tiang. The story itself, furthermore, dates from fifteen years ago when the original was published in Chinese; it has also already recently been made into a film.

The Secret Talker is a sort of expat novel in reverse: the expat and original intended audience are here Chinese, the foreign land is California.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.