My thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

A book with ghosts in the plot may not be my usual fare but what interested me in this one was its setting—Malaysia. I don’t think I’ve read anything set there before, which made me pretty keen to pick this one up.

We meet Jessamyn Teoh or Jess, who has been brought up in the States and has recently graduated from Harvard (and is yet to find a job). Her parents have decided to move back to Malaysia and start afresh after having coped with her father’s cancer and other difficulties. In Malaysia, her father has secured a job with her uncle (Kok Teng)’s company and the family is also temporarily living with him and her aunt (father’s sister) Kor Kor, while things settle down a bit and they can afford their own place. Jess hasn’t had much contact with her mother’s family barring her uncle Ah Ku whom she remembers borrowing money from her mother. While Jess loves her family, she also has secrets from them, specifically her girlfriend, who is now in Singapore, something she feels they will never understand or approve of.

Before Jess and her mother travel to Penang (her father having gone on ahead and started work), she begins to hear strange voices in her head which she dismisses but when in Malaysia, she begins to hear them again. Before long, she finds that the voice isn’t of her own imagination (or the impact of stress) but of her grandmother (mother’s mother) Ah Ma, who had passed on a year earlier. She learns as we go on that Ah Ma was a medium to the resentful goddess Black Water Sister during her life, and now Ah Ku is medium at the temple. Businessman Ng Chee Hin’s company is developing a property which will affect the land the temple is on (in fact he is trying all to throw them out), and Ah Ma wants to stop him before she moves on. And she has decided it is Jess who can help her do this…

When Jess agrees, she doesn’t quite realise what she is letting herself in for. While Jess thinks she will simply be doing what Ah Ma asks her to, Ah Ma has her own plans. To add to her troubles, the goddess herself seems to want something from her. Alongside Jess must keep up the pretence of trying to find a job (something which from being her priority has become a thing she can’t devote time to any more), and dealing with her personal life. We go along with Jess as she is immersed into a world of ghosts, spirits, and gods, modern-day greed, and also family secrets and stories.

This was so different from anything I’ve ever read before; I’ve read gothic books with ghostly presences of course, also some stories featuring ghosts but none where our central character is one who can communicate with (well may be some of those from Eva Ibbotson) and even shares her body with a ghost. So it was certainly interesting as a concept, and also done really smoothly (in the sense that one doesn’t feel a disconnect with the events that are unfolding, or any of them hard to accept as ‘real’).

I enjoyed seeing how the author explores the cultural relevance of gods, spirits and ghosts in Malaysia—it is a vital part of life for all communities there. It was interesting seeing how even immigrant workers from different cultures show respect to and even appease local deities, Jess’ own relatives who are Christian use their religion to protect themselves against their ill-effects but at no time are they disbelieving, and even the enemy, the greedy businessman Ng Chee Hin, who may be ruthless as far as building his empire is concerned, does not remain unaffected. [But the book doesn’t take us to explore the place itself as much—we do go round Penang, but the places itself are those associated with the deity.]

The characters themselves have interesting and strong stories—each has issues they are facing and must face, and problems they need to resolve apart from the gods and ghosts. Through these stories and the characters’ interrelationships we get more of an insight into the local culture, family relationships, customs, celebrations (the atmosphere surrounding Chinese New Year, for instance), and belief systems. This for me also made the book quite rich.

Jess’ parents have lived in America, seen success of a sort but have had to return and depend on their relatives which puts them in a difficult position. For Jess herself, both cultures (her adopted American culture as well as life back ‘home’ in Penang) are equally alien, but she tries to fit in while also grappling with her personal problems of finding a job and mending her relationship with her girlfriend which is strained. I don’t really know how I felt about her: I felt for her at times because of all that she has to go through but at others, I also found her a little annoying. Ah Ma is good fun but she has a lot of secrets and isn’t above deception which makes one not quite like her as much as one would have wanted.

Overall I found this a very enjoyable read with an interesting plot and setting and a story that holds one’s attention (though there were some aspects that I didn’t enjoy as much, like a scene where Jess much face some thugs, even though she does connect with the goddess in a new way there). A solid four star read for me.


One thought on “Book Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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