I chanced upon Second Sister by Chan Ho-kei while I was looking for another title on my book list. I decided to borrow it because my 30 minutes was almost up and I had not picked enough books yet. It turned out to be one of the best split-second decisions I’ve ever made.
This is a thrilling, cleverly constructed mystery set in hyper-modern Hong Kong about a woman on the hunt for the truth after her sister’s death. From the back cover: “A schoolgirl, Siu-Man, has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window. Her older sister and guardian, Nga-Yee, refuses to believe there was no foul play. Nga-Yee contacts a hacker and cyber security expert known only as N to investigate, and what follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, where someone has been smearing Siu-Man’s reputation. This is not the only hidden drama in the city of Hong Kong: Chan introduces us to a serial groper on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social performances; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N’s neighborhood. But who caused Siu-Man’s death and why? And in the echo chamber of online bullying, what does justice look like?“
Reading this book is like peeling a large onion (495 pages): there are multi layers of secrets, revenge, regrets and surprise. Instead of tears, it is the increasing adrenaline that pulsates through the reader from start till end. This brilliant novel skillfully weaves suspense, mystery, revenge, regret and surprise together, and is extremely compelling and utterly irresistible. The plot twists and manipulations are incredibly impactful.
Besides the dangers of cyberspace, online trolling, victim blaming, fake news, data privacy scandal, sexual harassment and exploitation, other subjects include high technology, high finance, high fraud, high school hierarchies, politics and culture. Themes like family values, relationships, dysfunctional families, absent parents, relentless surveillance, punishment, forgiveness, and the gap between online and offline behaviour are also explored.
The story reveals a lot about the kind of people that we are and the kind of people that we can be. It urges us to be kind to others, to communicate our feelings more effectively with people we love and not to take them for granted. It is a tale of heartbreak, loss and grief.
I am in awe of the author as well as the translator. Chan Ho-kei is a Hong Kong software engineer, script writer, game designer and editor of comic magazines; Jeremy Tiang is a Singaporean novelist and playwright. I may be biased (because I’m a Singaporean), but Second Sister is the best translated book I’ve ever read.