When Jess returns to Malaysia with her parents, she thinks she needs to figure out a job and how to finally tell them she’s in love with another girl. Instead, she’s hearing a voice in her head that wants her to confront a Forbes list business tycoon. Life is about to get even more complicated…
Black Water Sister – a spicy tale of possession, vengeful deities and family secrets – is as warm-hearted as Zen Cho’s work always is, with the rippling joy of deep waters under a kind sun. I think it’s as much Cho’s narration as her narratives that make me happy, simultaneously affectionate and funny and cutting and melancholy, a gently inflected emotional rollercoaster that slices little slivers off your heart only to return them with interest.
Cho’s contemporary fantasy addresses as broad a range of themes as her historical fantasies of manners. Black Water Sister starts with ideas of family: the secrets we hide from them and the obvious truths they just don’t see; the safe spaces they create, and the traps that go with them; filial piety and the expectation of obedience. Family that smothers, but family that will also always support (if not necessarily in the way you hope for).
And then it introduces the family we don’t talk about; in this case, terrifying grandmother Ah Ma, whose secrets dwarf Jess’s and who isn’t so dead she won’t wrestle Jess for possession of her body to go toe to toe with an old rival. Jess’s response – an entirely Western concern about mental health; an instinct towards therapy – is understandable. But Jess is not so American to discount that this might all be real, and she’s soon trying to figure out how to lay her grandmother – and the furious goddess she worshipped – to rest instead.
Malaysian-American Jess is an immigrant twice-over, always out of place even at home where she hides her sexuality (and girlfriend) from the unthinking prejudices of her family. Returning to Malaysia as an outsider, she provides an accessible frame for introducing Malay society and religion with commentary in passing on gentrification, unethical business practices and undocumented labour along with the temptation to impose Western attitudes and the deeply-ingrained understanding of filial duty (in conflict here with Jess’s need to keep an increasing number of secrets).
I enjoyed the sly commentary on gender roles that extends even into the supernatural: men are worshipped for living sanctified lives, becoming kindly spirit guides; women transcend when they die with their rage unspent, becoming terrifying spirits who must be propitiated. Ah Ma appreciates Jess – self-effacing, given to compromise and self-denial – for being ’clever at being angry’ once provoked (and just as stubborn as Ah Ma to boot). For her part, Jess discovers rage has power (and I do love a narrative that acknowledges why women might be angry and embraces their right to express it).
Cho delivers all this with an admirably light touch. On the surface, Black Water Sister is an entertaining ghost story with a ferocious dead grandma and a reluctant young woman drawn into a world of mediums and goddesses that she (initially) neither believes in nor fully understands. It is fast-paced and funny (and Ah Ma is another brilliantly cranky, crafty old woman). I chortled and cheered through the sometimes self-imposed tribulations – paranormal and personal – Jess had to deal with as she tried to navigate her new life in Malaysia; and appreciated the occasional reminder that the world is bigger than Jess’s narrow experiences (and she too has her prejudices). While the final act felt a little tidy / convenient, Jess’s over-arching journey was far too much fun for me to mind.
A great stand-alone that leaves me looking forward to more contemporary fantasy from this gifted writer.
I received a free copy from Pan MacMillan in exchange for an honest review. BLACK WATER SISTER is out now.