7 Whisper - Chang Yu-Ko

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Chang Yu-Ko

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To purchase Whisper

Title: Whisper
Author: Chang Yu-Ko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 293 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Whisper - US
Whisper - UK
Whisper - Canada
directly from: Honford Star
  • Chinese title: 荒聞
  • Translated by Roddy Flagg

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Our Assessment:

B : effectively creepy tale, with larger ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Taipei Times . 4/11/2021 Bradley Winterton
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2022 Sean Guynes

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel cleverly links up details that have their origins in Taiwanese spirit beliefs with the details of modern Taipei life. There’s no question of spirits and ghosts only occupying spooky old buildings -- they are living and well, we are led to believe, in every corner and intersection of the contemporary world. (...) Whisper is a professionally put together piece of ghost fiction, and recommended to all who like that kind of thing." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

  • "(A) gruesome yet thoughtful novel of ghosts, vengeful spirits, historical mystery, extreme inequality, and violent colonial pasts. (...) Chang’s novel is a realist noir whose entirely unlikable stand-in detective pursues a historical mystery that involves his own family and the colonization of Taiwan, first by Chinese, then Japanese imperial powers, resulting in the brutal murder of Indigenous peoples like the Bunun. (...) As a horror novel, Chang elevates the already familiar realist look at the neoliberal violence of daily life in contemporary East Asia with a deft interweaving of history-telling, personal narrative, and scenes of supernatural encounter that move between the tense and the terrifying with alarming ease." - Sean Guynes, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       One might say that Kuo Hsiang-ying and her husband Wu Shih-sheng have had bad luck in life in their native Taiwan, but they're not exactly without fault in the spiral downwards that has led them to the pretty miserable lives they lead and their very reduced circumstances. And it just gets worse at the beginning of Whisper.
       Shih-sheng has always felt entitled, but his arrogance and missteps have led him to torpedo what opportunities he had, and for the past few years he's had to make do as a taxi driver. Even that career had not gotten off to a good start, as he had run someone over while he was still getting the hang of the job, and the compensation he owed the victim and his family was a crushing debt that continued to hang over him and his wife. Always feeling that he is being treated unfairly, he does little more than lash out -- including at his wife --, drink, and gamble.
       Now, at the beginning of Whisper, Hsiang-ying is at one of her two jobs and manages to scald a woman badly with a boiling tofu hotpot -- with the woman's family soon enough also threatening her and her husband, and demanding compensation as well .....
       The couple seems to have reached the low point in their lives, but with this accident plunge lower still -- though here, for once, there are outer forces at play as well, i.e. it isn't entirely their fault. Both Hsiang-ying and Shih-sheng hear and see things that can't be explained -- a girl, and her voice. There's something about a Minako, but beyond that it's not really clear what is being said .....
       It -- the voice, the presence -- really gets to Hsiang-ying, who soon finds herself in the psychiatric ward -- and finds that even there she isn't safe from whatever it is ..... Shih-sheng doesn't understand what's going on either, but is at least driven to try to figure it out. He doesn't exactly clean up his act immediately, but at least becomes a little more focused in his efforts.
       Shih-sheng and Hsiang-ying have a daughter, Ting-ting, but have long been estranged from her -- yet another of their failures. Shih-sheng also is no longer close with his father, but his brother at least hasn't entirely forsaken him. Meanwhile, Hsiang-ying's sister, Kuo Chen-shan, married a man whom she helped become a successful businessman -- but who now spends much of his time working on the mainland, while their two kids are studying in the US. She always had contempt for Shih-sheng, but now finds she may, after all, have wound up in a situation no better than her sister's:

While the value of the company rocketed, her self-worth plummeted, and now she had little choice but to live alone in the empty shell of what was once the family home.
       There is also a social worker at the hospital where Hsiang-ying stayed, Jui-yi, who takes an interest in her case, and the effects it also has on another patient.
       From early on, it's clear to Shih-sheng that: "Something wasn't right". And that name keeps popping up, so: "For Shih-sheng, there could be only one explanation: Minako". But who or what that refers to long remains unclear to everyone involved.
       All trails eventually lead to Mount Jade. Shih-sheng follows one trail that leads him to that place, while Jui-yi does some research that also points her to it -- Niitaka, as the Japanese had called Mount Jade when they were in power: Taiwan's highest point, which the Japanese governors liked to climb: "as a symbol of their rule over the island".
       History plays a significant role in the story, going back to the Japanese colonial era, before the Second World War, with several characters having connections to mainland China during that time -- also under Japanese rule -- while a local indigenous population in Taiwan, the Bunun, suffered considerably at the time. Events from the 1930s, including the case of a girl who went missing, reverberate in the present-day -- a ghostly moxina presence still showing itself to be a powerful force.
       Chen-shan comes to realize her husband is having an affair, and she flies to Beijing to confront him, before then returning to Taiwan where she vows revenge -- and finds the terrifying worst form of doing so, revealing just what forces are at work here. Meanwhile, Shih-sheng looks for answers on Mount Jade and comes all too close to the evil that seems out to get him .....
       Whisper relies a great deal on the supernatural -- which frees author Chang Yu-Ko to do pretty much as he pleases. Hearing voices, hallucinations -- everything is as 'real' (or not) as he wants it to be, and he can twist the story any which way he wants; rhe normal rules of cause and effect don't apply. He puts this freedom to some good use -- the connections to and (after-)echoes of Taiwan's colonial and domestic history are certainly interesting -- but it also blunts the force of the story, as readers know that he can turn everything around again on a whim. (Some readers may have more patience with supernatural elements in their fiction .....) He does some of the supernatural very well -- the xiaogui that Chen-shan has a priestess create for her is an impressively scary little thing -- but there's too little sense of a larger ecosphere of such creations and how they function; here, they just pop up more or less for whatever purposes serve the author's needs.
       Whisper is gripping and entertaining enough along the way: the mysteries -- if somewhat complex -- are intriguing, especially with their connections to Taiwan's past, and the different paths of exploration the characters follow, from Jui-yi's research to Shih-sheng struggling on Mount Jade, are well done. As a character, Shih-sheng can be a bit hard to stomach, especially at first -- he is about as unsympathetic as a character can be --, and so it can be difficult to get in the least invested in his plight, but eventually his course is at least sufficiently intriguing to keep the reader interested. Meanwhile, Chen-shan's storyline might not be ideally tied in, especially at first, but is certainly a compelling one. It all makes for a decent and quite action-packed supernatural tale -- and while it might try to stuff too much in, is solid enough as that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 December 2021

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Whisper: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Chang Yu-Ko (張渝歌) was born in 1989.

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© 2021 the complete review

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