Heather Bass’ Review of Geling Yan’s The Secret Talker



“Come on, then. Let’s see who gets under whose skin.” Thus, Qaoi Hongmei, protagonist of Geling Yan’s The Secret Talker, challenges the stranger stalking her. Yan’s novel begins as a stalker story with a potential predator lurking in the shadows, watching Hongmei, a Chinese immigrant married to a white American. Hongmei sees the secret talker’s correspondence, and her participation in it, as a threat to her marriage (first of all) and her understanding of herself (worst of all). As this correspondence progresses, Hongmei develops a deeper understanding of herself, of the culture she left behind, and of her relationship with her husband, Glen.

Yan’s novel is not so much a psychological thriller—with risks at every turn of the page—as the first chapter may imply. Hongmei never sees this stranger as a predator. At times, the secret talker almost seems like Hongmei’s unpaid therapist. Yan’s work may disappoint regular readers of suspense, but The Secret Talker still has secrets to be uncovered and does not bore its reader. The secret talker refers to Hongmei as a “riddle of a woman” and readers cannot help but wonder at the identity of this stranger behind the emails (6). The secret talker preemptively sums up one of Hongmei’s character flaws: “It wasn’t just her husband she was closed off from; her soul was also shut off from its surroundings” (3). While readers will be interested in the secret talker’s identity and their fascination with Hongmei, we nevertheless learn more about Hongmei and her heritage. Not even Glen knows this side of his wife. Thus, the affair that Hongmei engages in with the secret talker is the worst kind of marital transgression, that of intimacy.

One of the methods Yan uses in developing this intimacy is her microscopic attention to detail. The body, transformed beyond the vessel of carnal pleasure and physical touch, holds more meaning in Yan’s novel. Hongmei’s first conversation with the secret talker recounts one of her outings with Glen at a restaurant. As with many of their other emails, Hongmei paraphrases in the third-person:

He’d watched as her husband had helped her take off her coat, stroking her cheek as he did so. She’d flinched a little, and he’d noticed that too. That was great, he said. It showed her skin wasn’t numb yet; she was still capable of rejecting meaningless caress. He asked if she had designed her own outfit—long trousers in a soft, wrinkled hemp fabric and alarmingly sexy beaded sandals that left her feet almost naked, light dancing through the nearly colorless crystals. (2)

Little attention is ever paid to Hongmei’s breasts and curves, but Hongmei’s feet are sexualized in the secret talker’s observations. Little movements and touches become profound. One example is in Hongmei’s description of one of her early dates with Glen in China:

It was after eight, and the sky had just darkened. Glen’s breath smelled faintly of wine, mixed with his after-dinner coffee. It was Sunday night, and the bus was crammed—everyone was rushing home. She and Glen stood facing each other, the alcohol swirling inside them. When the vehicle swerved violently, she took his hand. It was like the closing of a dam—in an instant, her drunkenness dissipated, swept away. (47)

Instead of that first kiss, we are treated to a single touch that expresses volumes and continues to do so as Hongmei reflects on her journey from her small town of Jiangnan to married life in America.

Yan writes in an omnipresent third-person perspective following Hongmei. The secret talker may watch our Chinese-born protagonist from a distance, but readers also watch her every action with the advantage of reading her thoughts. Hongmei is bored with her marriage and the man she married is no longer a mystery. Yet we learn alongside Hongmei that there is more to her and to Glen. Only when her “soul” lies exposed to the secret talker does Hongmei discover the secret talker’s identity.

While readers may at first want to dismiss this as a story of a bored wife who finds herself in an affair, Yan’s The Secret Talker is not so simplistic—much like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. We may unveil the secret talker’s identity by the novel’s end but we don’t know their motives for contacting Hongmei through such a dubious approach. We still have questions about the secret talker’s daughter and how they were entangled in a child molestation scandal. Even Glen, one of the novel’s flat characters, becomes an enigma. The most obvious mystery of Yan’s novel is solved, but The Secret Talker still maintains more secrets.

Geling Yan is an acclaimed Chinese author and it’s easy to see why with the English-translated version of her most recent work, The Secret Talker. Yan’s novel may come in a small package—a meager 151 pages of short chapters—but is it rife? Abundant? With complexities that yield more through multiple readings, book lovers can expect much from Yan’s work.

Yan, Geling. The Secret Talker. Translated by Jeremy Tiang, Harper Via, 2021.