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Zen Cho – Black Water Sister

Book Cover

Dark and muddy, but sometimes light and clear.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-509-80000-1
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Jess has moved ‘back’ to Malaysia from America with her parents; they are staying with relatives whilst they get on their feet. It’s difficult for Jess; not only does she not have the best grasp of Hokkien, she’s also got to manage to keep in touch with her girlfriend, Sharanya, back in America, without her parents knowing, and she’s got to decide where to find a job – in Singapore with Sharanya, who is moving for university, or in Penang where she, Jess, is now? It’s more than enough to deal with, but the voice of her dead maternal grandmother, who she never knew, has invaded her head, and Jess doesn’t know how to broach the subject with anyone, let alone get the lady out. And when it becomes clear that Ah Ma’s not going anywhere whilst Jess is there to help her with an old feud, and possibly to intercede with a goddess – or just let spirits take over her body so they can do it themselves – Jess has to face up to her unreal reality and go with it.

Black Water Sister is a low fantasy novel about ghosts and gods set in the reality of our present-day world. It is both incredibly funny and rather deep, issuing lighter moments and times of reflection and strength.

Let’s look at the comedy first because whilst it’s a mainstay of the book, it shouldn’t be the final thought where the topics are concerned. Black Water Sister is laugh-out-loud, the sort of humour I can only describe as very British, and this is because the best comparison is with the BBC series Ghosts. Ergo, if you like Ghosts, you’ll like Cho’s book. It’s got that same atmosphere of spirits and a person who doesn’t want to know they exist and would prefer they not exist, which as time goes on progresses to acceptance. The location is different, the situation is different, but the wit and sense of humour is incredibly similar. (And describing it as Very British, that does also mean that if you like British sitcoms in general you’ll most likely like it to.) It should be noted here that I’m aware the main character is Malaysian American and the book is set in Malaysia – the humour, to the best of my knowledge, fits those places too.

In Jess, Cho has created a wonderful character who slowly comes to find herself and flourish whilst giving herself up to the requirements placed upon her by others, both alive and dead (though in general, mainly those dead). As much as there is a plot, it’d be hard not to say that Jess’ development is not the most important aspect of the book, the way she deals with her worries about coming out to her family, about her ongoing relationship with a woman, about her need for a job and a decision on where that job should be. Cho’s focus on everyday worries is one of the book’s strengths – where Jess needs to become stronger in herself and effectively does so in part by becoming inhumanly strong due to her time with Ah Ma and the goddess, you might be forgiven for forgetting the very real anxieties and coming-of-age struggles that the book is grounded in.

Jess is the main character here but hot on her heels – generally literally, albeit in wisps rather than real shoes – is Ah Ma, her grandmother, who she has only now met since the lady passed on. (Never say Ah Ma has passed on – she has very much not.) Cho has created the quintessential grandmother and granddaughter relationship where the two generations are so different and struggle to understand each other, using stereotypes both global and culture-specific to both humorous and poignant success.

And to go back to the inhuman strength Jess gains – sometimes (it becomes more about Jess as she becomes stronger and less prepared to give her physical self over to the ghostly) we move to look more at the three ‘main women’ in the book in a way that’s more of a study of female empowerment and agency both generally and down the ages, with the Black Water Sister – the goddess herself – focusing on the violence she suffered in life and at the moment of her death. There are moments of both literal and metaphorical poignancy.

Religion, and religious and cultural superstition, are strong in this book, and cover a few different countries and religions, with traditional Chinese beliefs mixed with Christianity to interesting and humorous effect. (Jess’ auntie’s focus on getting out a crucifix in the face of an angry Chinese goddess at her window is a highlight.) I note this to say that the book will interest people of faith (any) and none, Cho achieving a perfect balance between respect and humour.

Black Water Sister is a ride, a riot, and a pause. It’s incredibly unique whilst having echoes of other stories, and is a perfect candidate for any forum thread called ‘books you think about long after you’ve finished them’. Simple plot; tons going on.

I received this book for review. The book is out today.

 
 

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 11, 2021, 11:43 am

Oh yay, I am so pleased you liked this. I have really been enjoying watching Zen Cho’s growth as an author — she’s a consistently funny and great read. This book sounds VERY up my alley, so I’m particularly looking forward to it.

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