Thursday, February 3, 2022

Whisper, by Chang Yu-Ko


Honford Star, 2021
originally published 2018
translated by Roddy Flagg
287 pp


  I ran across Whisper while browsing through World Literature Today, one of my go-to spots for discovering translated books. Reading through the review by Sean Guynes (where that link will take you), the words  "literary horror fiction," "spooky stuff" and "ghost" were what caught my eye,  and I read no further than the second paragraph because I just knew I had to have this book and I didn't want to know what happened.  

When I started reading it, I couldn't stop, finally finishing at two in the morning but remaining completely wired from what I'd just experienced.  Sleep -- not happening. 

Taxi driver Wu Shih-sheng and his wife Kuo Hsiang-ying used to be happy, but after Wu was laid off from his job working for an electronics importer, their lives started taking a downward path.  To make matters worse, when he'd first started the taxi driving, he'd run over someone and the victim's family took him to court where as compensation he was ordered to pay over four million dollars.  Between that and the legal fees, they had to sell their apartment; although Hsiang-ying works more than one job, their reduced circumstances had landed them in a cockroach-infested iron shack;  their daughter left home and they haven't seen her since.   And now, as the novel opens, it seems their situation just might be getting even worse: after getting yelled at by her boss at work one day,  Hsiang-ying ran into a woman in the food court causing the customer's  "bubbling tofu hotpot" to fly, scalding the woman and disfiguring her face.   Hsiang-yang blacked out and was sent to the hospital by her boss, where she could think only about the compensation the other woman's family would demand and the loss of her job.  But as things turn out, these would be the least of her problems. Back home again,  Hsiang-ying hears "an ear-splitting burst of static" just before she hears someone saying something about "a great forest of bamboo" and the name Minako.  She then experiences something completely bizarre before a fall from a window sends her back to the hospital.  

Meanwhile,  Shih-sheng decides to take a break and parks his taxi in a local cabbies' spot.  Next to his car he notices a cab that has been "clearly long closed," and decides to take a look inside.  He discovers a cassette recorder in the glove box and presses play, hearing a man's voice "interrupted by regular crackling sounds" as well as the word Minako.  When he's called to the hospital after Hsiang-ying's fall, she begs him for help -- she's sure that Minako is going to kill her and their daughter.  Surprised at hearing that name, he brushes her off, saying she's mad,  but hearing her say the name Minako takes him by surprise.   Is there some kind of coincidence at work? Later at home as he begins to think about his wife, he begins to realize that "something wasn't right," bringing his thoughts back to the abandoned cab, the cassette tape and Minako.    By now, Hsiang-ying has been moved to the psychiatric ward where her conviction that she's going to be killed grows stronger, to the point where she's "screaming hysterically" and the doctors have to put her in restraints and  sedate her.  But there is no safety for Hsiang-ying here, and her roommate watches in sheer panic as Hsiang-ying fights whatever horrors are assailing her.    

Shih-sheng comes to believe that had he only listened to his wife then things would have been different, so he decides to get to the bottom of things.  Independently, so too does a social worker, Jui-yi who is working with Hsiang-ying's by now terrorized roommate who while in a deep state of shock begins calling out strange words, talking  about ghosts, and making references to a place named Mount Jade.   Indeed, it seems that all roads lead to this place, as by now Shih-sheng has also made a connection to Mount Jade and is determined to destroy the evil that he is sure has its origins there despite a warning to stay away since "the mountain is the gateway of the ghosts."  

Someone reading this post might wonder about how much I've potentially given away here, but don't worry -- we're only up to page 83 by this time and there is much, more that has already happened and which will happen before all is said and done.  The author has created a  truly eerie ghost story that weaves together Taiwanese legend and folklore, the severity of the problems faced by Taiwan's indigenous people, the troubled era of the Japanese occupation, and history that goes back to 1930s Manchuria and the Chinese mainland.   Taken together, all of these elements reveal how, as the dustjacket blurb so accurately states, "a past can still kill."   It also shows how the spirit world is alive,  surviving beneath the trappings of the physical world and that  it is definitely not a force to be messed with, and there is no doubt that he has captured the anxieties of a modern society.  There is much to be said about the author's skill here in using horror and the supernatural to reflect on the modern world -- this is no average ghost story but rather a strong departure into the literary zone. 

 I will say that I wasn't wild about the subplot involving Hsiang-ying's sister and her revenge on her cheating husband.  While it did make for some truly creepy horror moments and shows how natural it might be for people to turn to the occult for assistance, it could have actually been left out and I wouldn't have minded, because for me it was just too much as well as a major distraction in the reading flow and I became impatient to get back to the main story. And quite honestly, I didn't care.     I also thought the ending a bit off, but I won't go into any detail here to explain why -- it should be apparent to anyone who reads this novel.    However, I loved and was completely absorbed in the ghost story itself, as well as in how the past not only reverberates in but also shapes the present in so many unseen ways.  What a mind this author must have, and I will certainly look forward to reading anything more he writes in the future.  My manythanks to the translator, Roddy Flagg, and to Honford Star for making this work available to English-speaking readers.  

recommended, for sure.  

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