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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, #115 review

Publication date: 11 May 2021

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Black Water Sister is as confusing as the passive aggresive double meaning sentences Malaysian aunties and uncles use to communicate with young people. It is truly a Malaysian tale, complete with the Malaysian style of English and the descriptive writing of home – Malaysia.

Jess’s parents are Malaysians that moved to the US for a better life. After their bankruptcy, they decided to move back home to Penang to have the support of their family. Since Jess was born and raised in the U.S with only the Hokkien Chinese Malaysian heritage modelled by her parents, this child of two worlds is faced with a challenge. In the U.S, she does not fit in. In Penang, Malaysia, she struggles to find her footing in the strange and familiar culture at the same time.

When Jess started to hear voices in her head, she thought she lost her mind. As it turned out, what she heard was her late grandmother – Ah Ma. Chinese Malaysian readers will read this book easier than others since a lot of the family member titles in the book is in Hokkien (Chinese dialect).

This book will intrigue you with all the mysterious hidden secrets and the new/old culture to learn about. Chinese Buddhism in Malaysia is heavily influenced by Confucianism and Taoism. I follow Theravada Buddhism, which stresses spiritual enlightenment instead of Taoism Buddhism that practices more towards rituals and offerings to the different Gods and Deities which you will learn about in the book. Fair warning, it will be hella confusing at first. Hopefully, you will get the hang of it with patience and memorisation.

The most important God is the Black Water Sister, she is both haunting and alluring. I honestly just didn’t know what to expect with this book. Zen Cho’s imagination and writing truly impressed me. At times, I have trouble figuring out who is the villain. Whether it is Ah Ma, Black Water Sister or Ng Chee Hin. They all have flaws and make grave mistakes at times, who was the lesser evil? A late medium? a God? Or the inocative open-minded son of the 4th richest man in Malaysia?

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is quite character driven and I don’t like Jess’s attitude towards her elders. Even though she was brought up in the U.S, there is still a line of respect given to elders even if they are truly ridiculous. She was disgustingly  rude to Ah Ma at times when her entire world went to shit. She swears the ‘F’ word to her. That’s a major NO in Chinese culture, the “you might get disowned” kind. I’m not sure if is Jess’s angst personality or the author writing it this way to show the cultural difference in the two personalities. Even so, since Jess graduated from college, it means she might be at least 22, so she should have some adult maturity right?? I’m very torn about her personality.

To sum it up. I was very frustrated. I get nagged all the time by my parents. In the book, I felt like I was the one getting nagged by the elders and the enduring Ah Ma who nagged on even in her death. I was disturbed. Reading is meant to be relaxing right?? WRONG. I was so stressed reading the book! HAAHAH. That shows how good Zen Cho’s writing is and how close it hit to home! Oh, and did I mentioned that Zen Cho is a Malaysian? 🥺🙆‍♀️🇲🇾

Black Water Sister address sensitive issues like homophobia, sexual assault, racism and religion. It highlights the bond between a family that no matter what happens, they will always have your back. Even if the older generation is ignorant and talk sarcastically to you, especially when they slap you and 5 minutes later they are giving you angpow XD

With the Hungry Ghost Festival 鬼节 coming up, the gates of the afterworld/ hell are opening for spirits and ghosts to enter the human realm, this book will make for a great spooky read.

By elysianbooksish

The Bookish Faerie who loves to read and write, and bake too

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