BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang [in Shelf Awareness]

Yes, it’s almost two inches thick and more than 400 pages, but that shouldn’t deter readers from procuring this book promptly. Chan Ho-Kei’s second thriller available in the U.S., Second Sister, is virtually irresistible, with twisty-turny, didn’t-see-that-coming manipulations guaranteed to keep readers wide awake into the wee hours. As with The Borrowed, Chan’s award-winning 2017 English-language debut, Second Sister is translated by Singaporean novelist and playwright Jeremy Tiang, who dexterously conveys Chan’s amalgamation of prose, text streams, e-mails, and blog posts complete with belligerent comments.

Nga-Yee and Siu-Man are sisters who have only each other left in the world: their father died in a construction work-related accident when Nga-Yee was almost 13 and Siu-Man was 4; their mother succumbed to cancer a decade later, leaving Nga-Yee to raise Siu-Man on her own. Returning from her librarian job one evening, Nga-Yee is horrified to learn that the bloody corpse on the pavement outside her apartment building is Siu-Man, who apparently jumped from their 22nd-floor window. The quiet Siu-Man had been ferociously cyberbullied after outing a subway groper, but Nga-Yee thought she was doing everything possible to care for her sensitive sister. Devastated and bewildered, Nga-Yee can’t accept that Siu-Man chose death.

When the police prove unhelpful, Nga-Yee eventually finds herself in a dilapidated tenement, repeatedly hitting the apartment buzzer belonging to an acerbic, arrogant detective who calls himself just N – “I don’t like being Mister anything.” He initially refuses to take Nga-Yee’s case with a dismissive, “It’s too easy.” Her tenacity – including surviving a gangster attack by his side – eventually breaks through his protestations, and he sets his unparalleled techno-savvy and unconventional methods to ascertain the whys of Siu-Man’s demise. While Nga-Yee remains single-mindedly focused – understandably, of course – on her sister’s tragedy, N already has a broader view that recognizes Siu-Man’s circumstances as part of a proliferating network of insidious, immediate societal afflictions.

Chan presents what initially seems to be a linear mystery – solve the dead girl’s murder – and amplifies the thriller into a multi-layered treatise on overcrowded cities and its overlooked citizens (his native Hong Kong earns character status here), the unchecked power of the Internet, the grey ethics of revenge, and the potential limits of morality in business, friendships, and even among family members. Deftly controlling multiple narratives beyond the sisters’ tragedy, Chan exposes high tech, high finance, high fraud, high school hierarchies, dysfunctional families, absent parents, relentless surveillance, sexual politics, and rape culture. For readers, the provocative mix of urgent contemporary issues and page-turning action won’t disappoint: as N eventually admits to Nga-Yee, “It turned out to be so much more interesting than I’d expected.”

Shelf Talker: A woman’s determination to understand her teenage sister’s suicide leads her to the mysterious N, whose high-tech savvy and unconventional methods reveal Hong Kong’s underbelly.

Review: Shelf Awareness Pro, January 24, 2020


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