Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 June 2021

#Review - Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Cover by Mel Four/
Pan Macmillan art dept
Black Water Sister
Zen Cho
Pan Macmillan, 10 June 2021
Available as: HB, 370pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
ISBN(HB): 9781447299998

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Black Water Sister via NetGalley

Black Water Sister is an absorbing story. It is firmly set in the modern world, taking place on the bustling island of Penang, yet blends that with a sympathetic take on traditional magic, mythology and indeed, gods.

Jessamyn ("Jess") and her parents are Chinese Malaysians. They have lived in the USA, where Jess's parents went to work, since she was five years old. After her father loses his job and suffers a health scare, the family return to Penang and are living with relatives (Jess's aunt Kor Kor and her husband). Jess's dad is carrying out pretty menial work for her uncle, and she and her mother feel he's being taken advantage of - but they're being provided with somewhere to stay so are under something of an obligation. It's a delicate situation, and Jess doesn't want to upset things. 

However, we know two things from the start of this book, both threatening no end of upset. First, Jess is gay. Secondly, she's being haunted by a ghost who is, she soon learns, that of her grandmother, Ah Ma. Granny drags Jess into a complicated feud involving a businessman with criminal connections, rival Chinese deities and the history of that sprawling family. Jess is, of course, resistant at first and thinks she's losing her mind but she eventually has to accept, reluctantly, the reality of what's going on - and, even more reluctantly, that Ah Ma will get her into deep trouble unless she helps out.

Playing out in the background is the fascinating story of Jess's large family, its hopes and fears, preferences and prejudices, something she navigates on a daily basis. The fact that Jess has been brought up abroad is a superb alibi for Zen Cho to explain cultural references that the Western reader may not quite get - as well as creating a layer of friction for Jess since she's, ever so slightly, out of step with everyone else. There's a nice description, a kind of inversion of the normal picture, showing the effect of exile when Jess sees her parents - who she's previously regarded as quite reserved people -  suddenly becoming very social, and realises that's who they really are when they are at home and relaxed rather than among strangers. 

But Jess doesn't have much time to understand the impact of emigration on her family, or how it feels for them to be home, apparently defeated by the land of promise they thought they were going to. No. The story gets very thrillery, with plenty of action, characters who are morally conflicted and Jess herself desperately trying to work out exactly how this strange world she's entered - a world of mediums and endlessly bickering Chinese gods, of hoodlums, of downtrodden building workers - actually works. It would be so much easier if she could depend on Ah Ma for guidance and advice but she turns out to be a somewhat mercurial person (while, I think, subtly educating Jess all the same).

As if that wasn't enough, Jess is trying to combine all this with maintaining a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend Sharanya (especially as Jess isn't out to her parents, and is desperately afraid that they will reject her). There are tensions here, things Jess doesn't want to share about her new life and the sheer pressure of events - and being in a crowded house - make sit hard to take those calls. Jess's dilemma here, even as a self assured young woman who knows what she is and shat she wants, is painful to see.

It's a well written book that draws the reader further and further in, exploring so many cross cultural themes - not only US culture contrasting with this part of Asia, but also the position of the Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia, the accommodation of the ancient (and not so ancient) gods with the modern world, the place of Christians (Jess's aunt is one) and much more. There are also some sharp contrasts even within cultures: such as the way those traditional gods came to be - the male gods often having been reverend holy men, the female ones, unfortunate woman scarred by violence and so raised to the status of deities. Part of Jess's quest is to discover the truth about a particular god, the Black Water Sister of the title, presented by some as a violent and vengeful spirit (and accordingly, used for that purpose) but who actually has a rather more interesting history. Jess needs to understand, and quickly, if she's to outwit gods, her grandmother, the mobsters and other sundry dangers.

And at the end of the day, she also needs to work out her relationships with her family and Sharanya. 

And find a way to earn a living.

So - there is a LOT going on here, but Zen Cho shapes this material into a sharp, readable and fun book. I'd strongly recommend Black Water Sister.

For more information about Black Water Sister, see the publisher's website here.

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