Fiction Reviews

Black Water Sister

(2021) Zen Cho, Pan, £7.99, pbk, 370pp, ISBN 978-1-509-80001-8


A witty and intelligent coming of age drama with ghosts, gods and gangsters thrown into the mix.

Jessamyn Teohís life is thrown into turmoil on several fronts. She is struggling as to whether to tell her conservative family that she is a lesbian. Her fatherís cancer recovery means the family need to return to Malaysia to join him after years spent living in the US. Jessamyn (Jess) faces demands to find work, lose weight and be more like other members of the family. Their well-meaning peer group pressure oppresses her and makes her more reclusive.

The situation peeks when Jess begins hearing voices and starts sleepwalking, except this is not due to psychosis but spectral possession by her late grandmother Ah Ma, who needs Jess to help her save a little jungle shrine to the goddess Black Water Sister, (a shrine Ah Ma served in life), as it is threatened by greedy land barons, led by a ruthless gangster who happens to be among the wealthiest and most respected men in Malaysia.

The early encounters with Ah Ma are very much a Mister Ed style comedy with Jess struggling to explain her odd behaviour and why she seems to be talking to herself as telling the truth will make her sound truly crazy.

Gradually the story grows more serious and tense as Jess struggles to find independence, rather than being a pawn for Ah Ma, which gets more difficult when the Black Water Sister begins to show signs of having her own agenda.

The interactions between Jess and her superstitious family, who are baffled by the Internet and the new-fangled ways of the modern world are delightful, though Jess seems far less interesting than the people around her. The pace is often quite calm and even the villains never seem particularly powerful or menacing. She is given work with her fatherís company but does virtually nothing there with little questioning or consequence. Little is really made of the seΧual identity crisis either which is largely postponed because of the ghostly struggles bar for a chilling vision where Jess is shown her parents ostracising her completely when her lesbianism is discovered.

With both Ah Ma and The Black Water Sister out to use Jess as a murderer, her struggle to avoid violence and liberate herself from their control becomes the heart of the story.

At times Ah Ma is a voice in Jessís mind. At other times, she is able to detach herself visibly from her human pawn, sometimes invisibly. Others seem able to detect Ah Maís presence when the narrative calls for it.

Zen Cho throws in some cultural references. When some of her family learn that Ah Ma and the Goddess are messing with Jessís head they drag her to a temple dedicated to the Monkey God, though Zen Cho has already described him as a fictional entity (she even refers to the DVDís of the Monkey TV series. Nevertheless, the Monkey spirit does briefly come to life and interact with Jess though it is an interlude of no real consequence to what will follow.

The most formidable character is the outrageous and self-serving Ah Ma, even overshadowing the mysterious Black Water Sister.

An entertaining romp that in many ways would work better without its supernatural urban fantasy elements but its depiction of family conflict and capture of Malaysian life and culture is wonderful.

Arthur Chappell


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