REVIEW: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.
She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
Trigger Warning – Jess is subjected to an attempted sexual assault. There is a lot of violence. Jess isn’t out to her parents.
Dear Ms. Cho,
I decided to try this book because it didn’t seem to be anything like some of yours that I’d read before. A few of those had worked for me but, alas, some hadn’t. The beginning of the blurb sounded light and playful but by the time I finished the story, I realized that the dark promise of the ending was closer to what I read. There were definitely times that darkness was needed to meet and match the violence aimed at Jess and others but readers should be aware and ready for that.
The start of the novel is a bit confusing as there is a lot going on. Jess and her parents have moved back to Malaysia from the US after her dad lost his job, partly due to the cancer treatment he had. They’ve moved in with his younger sister and her husband, relatives have descended on them, and Jess is surrounded by uncles and aunties all talking about her and what she should do with her life. Various tensions make things more difficult as Jess wonders what she’s going to do with her life now and how she’ll keep up her romantic relationship. She’s not out to her parents and worries about how they will react when they learn of her sexual orientation.
And then she begins to hear a voice that sounds as if it’s near her or sometimes in her head. Yeah, that scares her. Turns out her dead grandmother has a revenge plan she needs Jess to help her with. Their family appears to have a talent as mediums for various gods and now that Ah Ma is dead, the god Ah Ma worked for is looking for another body to use as well as perpetually being mad as hell.
I felt as if I had just stepped off the plane into a new world and culture. Malaysia isn’t just a vague setting but almost another character in the book. The various languages, the mix of cultures, the familial relationships and obligations, and the religions are definitely key parts of the plot. At first I had to pay close attention to the names of each character as Jess thinks of them in terms of how they are related to her. The language also took me a little while to get used to as it represents the multilingual residents of Penang. But all of this made me feel I was there.
Jess initially knows little of the both the gods who become involved or the reason why her grandmother is in her head. Even when Jess lays down the law and works a deal with Ah Ma in which her grandmother must answer all of Jess’s questions and be honest when doing so, there are still things that Jess has to painfully learn along the way. There are lots of characters involved and many have their own agendas that don’t match what Jess needs. Jess ends up making mistakes in what she does and who she trusts but honestly, with all she has going on in her life, she does the best she can.
A couple of things frustrated me. Jess is desperately trying not to stress her parents because of the situation they are all in and her dad’s recent cancer. She not only keeps herself in the closet but basically wears a straightjacket while she’s in there. She also avoids telling almost everyone about the fact that Ah Ma is in her head and anything about the dark god for whom Ah Ma was a medium. Jess also doesn’t tell her girlfriend much of what is happening to her and refuses to come out as Sharanya has done to her family. Jess offers valid reasons why she has done most of this and it relates to her family’s culture and her love of her parents despite how she can be frustrated with them. Jess is also experiencing her parents in a new way as she sees them in their home culture instead of as immigrants in the US. Now it is Jess who is having to adapt to a wrenching social change.
The scenes of Jess and her relatives interacting with the supernatural are amazing. Exposition is avoided – which is nice – but it takes a while to discover exactly what is going on. This keeps the reader poised and mentally on their feet but it also, a few times, leaves you a little bit lost and floundering. Perhaps just a touch more explanation could have avoided this.
What I really enjoyed are the exchanges between Jess and (usually grouchy, tough, and single minded) Ah Ma, the clear delineations between the different generations (when Jess’s parents tell her they emigrated for her to have a better life, they meant it), the effortless inclusion of and immersion in Penang culture, seeing a world in which gods are real, and Jess’s determination to find a solution to her problems including one vengeful god who was getting used to using Jess’s body. There are parts of the book I found difficult to read due to violence as well as the hard life Ah Ma had led but I’m not at all sorry I read it. B