Chan Ho-Kei, Second Sister (Chinese 2017, English 2020)
Last year I read Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed and I loved it. It was very original with a strong sense of place. So when I heard from Annie at A Bookish Type that there was another of his novels in translation, I immediately went to Netgalley and requested it. Granted, I have little objectivity when it comes to books set in Hong Kong, but it was a treat – although it started awkwardly I must say.
The first chapter is a tear jerker of massive proportions. You pile up all the possible human miseries onto one single family: poverty, illness, unfair treatment, bullying, scam, fatal accident, abuse, sexual attack, suicide… and you see if anyone survives. No, it’s not Cosette in Les Mis, but almost. It’s Nga-Yee, a librarian young woman who has survived her father’s death in an accident because he worked two jobs, her mother’s death by cancer and exhaustion, only to witness her young sister’s suicide. Oh, and of course, since she’s now all alone in the world, she needs to vacate her flat that is shockingly too big (for Hong Kong standards, which means 300 square feet) Honestly, it’s all a bit too much and if I had not read Chan Ho-Kei before it might have turned me off. But hang in there, it soon gets better.
As the sole bread winner, and a tough girl herself, Nga-Yee has worked too much to understand her sensitive little sister Siu-Man who was in middle school, but she refuses to accept her suicide at face value. Someone must have pushed Siu-Man to despair, and Nga-Yee wants revenge. She first hires a private investigator, who discovers that Siu-Man was indeed victim of internet trolling, but he can’t get to the bottom of it. He introduces her to N., an idiosyncratic hacker who lives in a derelict building and who first refuses to take her case, before reluctantly agreeing.
N. is obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes, because he’s a loner, whimsical, brilliantly clever and treats Nga-Yee/Watson like a moron. (Although in that case, Nga Yee is a client and she has done her fair share of badgering him into taking her case) The magic tricks of the investigation are not about identifying soil or tobacco like in the old days, but about IT hacking techniques and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. I guess it might sometimes be a bit too much for a person who is not into computers, but that’s not my case (I do work in IT, and fwiw most information bits are accurate). From this book even more than the one before, I get the sense that Chan Ho-Kei is a pragmatist (so Hong Kong in a way!), interested in how people go about ethical quandaries and make up their own moral decisions in an uncertain time.
The plot is very convoluted and very clever. While the Borrowed plot went backwards in time and wove into each chapter recurring characters, places and historical facts, this plot is rather like Russian dolls, and there’s always another secret twist after the next one. It’s pretty addictive, and it reminded me of familiar places in Hong Kong, especially derelict buildings in Sai Ying Pun, that might or might not be the home of clever hackers.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.