Title: Black Water Sister
Author: Zen Cho
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Ace Books
Synopsis: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Malaysian lesbian main character, Malaysian setting and mythology, Chinese culture
Recommended Readers: Fans of Yangsze Choo and anyone looking for a modern, magical Southeast Asian read
CAWPILE Rating: 9.29
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Contemporary fiction is not a genre I usually pick up because most of it simply doesn’t interest me. Contemporary fantasy, however, is an entirely different matter, and Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister struck gold with me from the very first chapter.
If you’ve read and loved either Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride or The Night Tiger, then the setting, tone, and mythology of Black Water Sister may come across as familiar to you, to say nothing of someone who already has a Malaysian background. I only mention Yangsze Choo because 1) I love her works and 2) she started this love for Malaysian contemporary fantasy that I possess now, and I am beyond delighted that Zen Cho has contributed to that love. I cannot wait to check out Cho’s other books now.
Black Water Sister opens with jobless Harvard graduate Jessamyn Teoh moving back with her family to Malaysia after her father loses his job in America. Between hiding her lesbian relationship from her traditional parents, attempting to re-assimilate to a country and culture she hasn’t been a part of in decades, and adjust to the sudden swarm of relatives, Jess is understandably stressed. Hearing voices should come as no surprise—except the voice she hears is the ghost of her estranged, opinionated grandmother, Ah Ma, who was a spirit medium to a god called the Black Water Sister. Now, Ah Ma wants Jess to help her exact vengeance on a gang boss and businessman who has offended the god, or she won’t be able to pass on to the afterlife. However, the more Jess becomes entrenched in the supernatural, the more her own life and destiny are thrown into jeopardy.
From the start, I loved Jess as a protagonist. Her voice came through crystal clear even as her future was impossibly murky with indecision. I loved her commentary on everything along with her acerbic attitude and rare moments of softness. Her care for her mother’s feelings and her dad’s health balanced understandably with her exasperation with them. This book obviously highlights the struggles of Asian youth trying to make their own life decisions while trying to please, respect, and be loyal to their families. Being Southern American, this struggle is familiar to me—as are the guilt trips from Mom—but it’s not one that is as culturally damning as what Jess must contend with. As such, she was incredibly easy to root for and for a whole host of reasons.
Then, of course, there was Ah Ma, who delighted me so much. She and Jess had such an entertainingly antagonistic relationship the way only a stubborn granddaughter and a vengeful ghost of a grandmother can have, both of them cut from the same cloth. The book could’ve been them just trying to shop for groceries together and arguing the whole time, and I would’ve loved it. Fortunately, Cho gave me a good plot and mystery to chew on as well.
Aside from Jess and Ah Ma, Cho couldn’t seem to stop giving me interesting characters who were fun to read on the page. Jess’s parents, Kor Kor, Ah Ku, Ng Chee Hin, Ng Wei Sherng, the Datuk Kong, and the Black Water Sister herself—each contributed to the novel and Jess’s plight in both large and subtle ways. I also greatly enjoyed the Manglish dialogue with which most of these characters spoke; it represented so much of Malaysian culture, which is such a blend as is between East and West, for better or for worse.
Because as fun as the plot and characters of Black Water Sister are, this is still a contemporary fiction novel, which means it brings up a lot of social commentary and examines it through Jess’s lens as a Southeast Asian woman who grew up in America but then watched that very country beat down her immigrant parents. Jess, a Harvard graduate whose parents sacrificed so she could have a better life, but then had no job prospects post-Ivy League school. Jess, a lesbian who is trying to be true to herself but has to hide because of her traditional family’s homophobia.
There’s so much readers can ponder on with this novel: the explorations of superstition vs. faith vs. logic—whether this is about insulting a god, praying to one’s ancestors, converting to Christianity, or embracing secularism—and the effect each has on Malaysian culture; individualism vs. family/community; gentrification (and simultaneously, the view of the West as offering opportunity, advancement, and modernity while in the same breath the West exploits immigrants for their labor and makes their culture more palatable to the masses). There’s more, but I don’t want to give away the book’s finer story beats.
No matter what you latch onto the most, Zen Cho’s excellent writing in setting a scene, striking a tone, and delivering superb imagery will guide you through it all. She truly brought a contemporary novel to vivid life using mystical elements, wonderful characters, and a rich atmosphere. I could feel the Malaysian heat beating down on me as I read even in a well air-conditioned home. Her writing is immersive, and that can make all the difference.
Finally, it’s a simple thing, but I loved how this entire plot played out as well as the note of hopefulness with which the novel left off. How Jess learned exactly what she could live through and survive facing, how she gained the confidence to move on with her life. Black Water Sister works incredibly well as both a standalone and as a character exploration piece, and I’m so excited for other readers to get their hands on it.