Published by Ace Books on May 11th 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.
I added Black Water Sister by Zen Cho immediately to my TBR once she announced it on her Twitter. The blurb blew me away and gave me all the feels. While I might not be the daughter of immigrant parents from Malaysia, I am the daughter of a man who escaped the blazing Indonesian weather. The book has a lot of elements that I experienced or seen myself. The belief that spirits exist and the ghosts of our ancestors can still reach us. Especially the strict, and often mean, grandmother I know very well. It felt like Zen had written this book for me, about me. And that’s 100% not true, but it shows that some stories transcend the author and readers make them their own.
For this review, I’m going to do something different. Besides sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share my experiences too, to explain why certain elements resonate with me on a deeper level, and how this book makes me understand my Indonesian family better.
A long time ago, my father tasked me to escort my dementing grandmother (his aunt, but she was the only grandmother figure in my life, so I call her grandmother) back to Indonesia. While it’s not recommended to travel such large distances with a dementing person, she was crying, begging to go back to her motherland. When we arrived, her nephew picked us up and brought us to his guest house. A giant mansion that was just one of the many he owned. They were loaded, much like the antagonists in the book. His son was my age and he had to entertain me the few days we stayed there before moving on to go to my aunt, where my grandmother would be staying. Being with someone that rich is an experience, an unreal one. Having servants and people who do everything you ask, that’s all new to me, but if you’re part of the top whatever percent, this is your normal life.
Jessamyn feels this disconnect too when she gets acquainted with the son. She’s not used to having people at the beck and call. This is probably the thing most of us can identify with.
Another large part of the story is Jessamyn’s grandmother, Ah Ma. Jessamyn is the medium for her grandmother’s spirit and she’s used by her. While I was in Indonesia, my grandmother reverted back to her younger self. Now, I’ve already heard the stories from my father and was prepared. She was strict, so strict to the point my family didn’t like her much (and that’s an understatement). She had a princess complex and treated everyone like shit, including me. She literally said I wasn’t her family anymore because I allowed the servants to sleep in ‘her house’, since she hadn’t given permission for it. It wasn’t her house, it was her nephew’s, and the servants were there for her. But it was hard to get that through to her.
She was this old 80+-year-old woman, 30 kilos at most, her grip stronger than a woman that tiny should be, was scary. I was just a granddaughter, and the other people around me were servants who I couldn’t understand. While she didn’t possess me like Ah Ma, she definitely haunted me. The fact that she was declared dead three times, and came back two of those times didn’t help. This was long after I left Indonesia, but I’m half-convinced she’ll haunt me as soon as I set foot on Java.
So now we’re getting into the spiritual part of the book. Ghosts, spirits, and gods. The guest house we were staying at was haunted. That’s what the servant told me. My father and several of his siblings have shared stories about ghosts or spirits they saw in vacation homes. The farther you go into the jungle, the bigger the chance you’ll see a spirit. While I haven’t seen one, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. I was overloaded with thousands of new stimuli, smells, emotions, people, food, so I might have missed their presence. But their presence was noticeable. People talked about it, there were shrines and offerings (especially on Bali) everywhere. It’s hard to ignore, even if your family is Christian or Muslim.
Zen Cho explained in the Q&A she did with The American Book Centre in the Netherlands that her book is marketed as fantasy by the publisher but that this is real for a lot of people. I see both sides here: the marketing standpoint and the author’s point. This is real, and I’ve seen it (although, still no ghost sighting). Maybe ‘spiritual’ would’ve been a better descriptor than ‘fantasy’, but that would confuse people stumble upon the book, and change their expectations. It might even turn people off, or the book might never find its true audience. ‘Fantasy’ in this case is just a label used for marketing. For all I know, this story could’ve happened for real.
Another part of Jessamyn’s character is her sense of duty to her family and wanting to be herself. I’m also familiar with those, as I’m sure many people with (Asian) parents are. I wanted to please my parents, especially my father. I did whatever I could to live up to his expectations and still felt inadequate. Somehow my brother never disappointed him. Is it the oldest daughter’s task to disappoint their parents by taking a different path than what they’d anticipated? I don’t know. But I recognize so much of what Jess went through in Black Water Sister. Let’s not forget the part where Jess feels ‘in between’ because she doesn’t fit in in America but neither in Malaysia. She’ll never be part of something. I feel you, Jess. Even my father is now seen as a foreigner in Indonesia even though he still has his Indonesian pasport.
Okay, enough about me. This review is already long enough without me rambling on. I don’t want to go too much into the worldbuilding since I’ve talked about that above. To me, this story could’ve been real, which should say enough about how good the worldbuilding is.
All of the characters and their motivations were great. I stayed with my aunt for the few weeks I was there and got to know my family. I see Kor Kor in my aunt and a few of the supporting characters in my other family members. Every bit of the book made me remember bits and pieces from this trip so it was an emotional rollercoaster for me. The descriptions of the environments, the places Jess visits, and the frequent family visits, all came to life in my head.
Readers might struggle with the way the people talk since Cho uses slang and Manglish in her dialogue. I personally love it. I can hear the intonations from talking to my family. The language and vocabulary might be slightly different, but there’s a lot of overlap. I sincerely hope people won’t reject the book because of it, because it’s a great book.
It’s probably not a surprise I’m giving Black Water Sister five stars. I’m also adding this to the list of books people should read if they want to understand me better. Please read this book. It’s such a strong story with great characters and a whole lot of feelings.