By Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang Head of Zeus/Paperback/ 495 pages/$27.95/ Available at bit.ly/SecondSister_Chan/3.5 stars
Second Sister, a very topical novel, opens with tragedy: the suicide of the titular character.
Playful schoolground jibes take a darker and more dangerous turn in this intricate work by Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-Kei, with Internet trolls hiding behind their online anonymity to cast venom.
Au Siu-Man, a 15-year-old secondary school student, jumps from the 22nd-storey apartment she shares with her elder sister Nga-Yee, a 23-year-old librarian.
The two are orphans and Nga-Yee, now without a sister, embarks on a cat-and-mouse game to find those behind a series of vicious online posts that had seemingly led to Siu-Man’s untimely death.
A self-professed Luddite, Nga-Yee enlists a mysteriously eccentric white hacker N – a maverick master of disguise both online and offline and ostensibly a modern-day Robin Hood.
She finds herself plunging deeper into the rabbit hole of the digital world, as she contends with issues such as surveillance, anonymous Internet trolls and identity theft.
The digital underground is where Chan shines, tapping his previous experience as a software engineer and a video game designer in this sophomore novel, first published in Chinese in 2017 and now adeptly translated into English by Singaporean author Jeremy Tiang.
The novel also looks at ambitious tech entrepreneurs whose endgame is to win over Silicon Valley venture capitalists at all costs, even if it means disregarding ethics.
In a side story, a start-up is trying to monetise online gossip and name-calling and fanning the flames of cyber bullying in the process.
There is plenty of contrived melodrama that almost beggars belief, and the complexity of the digital language means the story’s flow gets bogged down.
Nga-Yee is such a digital dinosaur that even what seems the simplest terms are explained. But this is necessary so as not to alienate readers with jargon.
Second Sister is an important, multidimensional and even educational read into the dangers of cyber bullying.
There are terms such as doxxing (the public broadcast of private information) and man-in-the-middle attacks (the hacker, acting as an intermediary, secretly relays and possibly alters communications between two parties who think they are talking to each other).
The book feels very timely, given the death last Saturday of Japanese professional wrestler Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old cast member of the ongoing season of reality television programme Terrace House.
While the cause of her death has not been announced, she had openly struggled with cyber bullying – a theme that struck deeply home as I finished the novel’s final chapters.
If you like this, read: The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan (Soho Press, 2020, $18.95, available at bit.ly/ KinoTPWMS). Friends try to make sense of her death after the secretive, troubled Miwako Sumida takes her own life in this atmospheric novel set in Japan and written by Indonesia-born Singaporean writer Clarissa Goenawan.
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