Spirits Abroad – Zen Cho: delight with whipped cream and a sour berry compote

Book cover - Spirits Abroad by Zen ChoThis collection of short stories from Malaysian author Zen Cho is absolutely delightful. I picked it up on @nanila‘s recommendation, and having finally got round to reading it I will now cheerfully buy Zen Cho’s new novel out later this summer.

Zen Cho has a light touch that takes the sting out of her sometimes spiky tales of ghosts and spirits. There’s a sense of humour and a fearsome resilience to her characters – both her heroines and their ‘aunties’ – that utterly endeared them to me. The tales themselves are very definitely from the Malay tradition of spirits and the author takes no prisoners here – the prose is peppered with Hokkien phrases, with no glossary provided. You work it out from context, and it never gets in the way. In spite of this, they feel more accessible than the two Aliette de Bodard novellettes I read earlier in the year.

Most of the tales are set in Malaysia, with a couple set in the UK (where the author now lives) and one on the Moon. Those in the UK were two of my favourites: a group of Malay teenagers at an English boarding school unexpectedly fending off an attack by an army of enraged faeries, the teachers having decamped over night, leaving a note that essentially says They don’t like iron or running water. They have short attention spans. Good luck. We’re sorry and a visit from a dragon come to claim his due (‘You mustn’t just go flying off with a virgin’ – ‘Oh no, consent is essential’), resulting in a massive upsurge of magical activity that turns the city on its head as he tries to woo his preferred bride.

The stories tackle topics ranging from self harm, self knowledge, family honour, interracial relationships and immigration. All share a warm core, and there are repeated themes of the importance of family, friendship, respect and compassion.

Highly recommended. Unexpectedly comforting reading for a collection of ghost and spirit stories.