Book review: Spirit medium at large in Zen Cho's Black Water Sister

Malaysian fantasy author Zen Cho (left) returns home with her latest novel, Black Water Sister.
Malaysian fantasy author Zen Cho (left) returns home with her latest novel, Black Water Sister.PHOTOS: DARREN JOHNSON, MACMILLAN


Black Water Sister

By Zen Cho
Macmillan/ Paperback/ 370 pages/ $29.43/ Available here
4 out of 5

Jessamyn Teoh has several problems.

She is a university graduate who cannot find a job. Her family has had to move from the United States back to Penang to live off the charity of relatives. She has yet to come out to her parents about her sexuality.

And if that was not enough, she is also being haunted by her dead but still cantankerous grandmother.

Malaysian author Zen Cho turned out two dazzling fantasy novels with the Sorcerer To The Crown duology (2015 and 2019).

Now, she romps home with this galvanising ride through a Malaysia both modern and mystical, a milieu of hipster cafes and heritage temples, where the trees are full of spirits that ask pleasantly: "Eh, how are you? Died already, is it?"

Jess' Ah Ma was the medium of a vengeful local god, the Black Water Sister, who manifests as a small Chinese woman with a blank face, "a hole punched out of a sane world, a channel for the sublime - or the horrific".

Ah Ma wants to save her god's shrine, which is in danger of being demolished by a property company with unsavoury criminal ties.

She will stop at nothing - including possessing her granddaughter's body against her will.

The book is slow to get going, but once it does, it is thrilling and often hilarious.

Cho has an ear for the cadences of Manglish, or Malaysian English, rendering its unforced rhythms on the page.

She excels at the matter-of-fact juxtaposition of the supernatural and the mundane.

"She can't be a medium," Jess' mother laments when told of her daughter's plight. "She graduated from Harvard."

Behind the unearthly thrills lurks a darker reality: migrant workers' health and safety, the regentrification of heritage neighbourhoods, domestic abuse and violence against women through history.

Jess' supernatural stress is in the same basket as her relatable "adulting" crisis and her despairing love for her family who may not be able to accept her as she truly is.

In a time when the pandemic has made crossing the Causeway nigh impossible, one is glad of this spirited read.

If you like this, read: How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World by Joshua Kam (Epigram Books, 2020, $26.64, available here). A prophet in green persuades a Christian cantor to go on a madcap road trip to raise the old saints of Malaysia.

This article contains affiliate links. If you buy through these links, we may earn a small commission.