Gangsters, ghosts, and gods. That’s what you’re up against in Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Be prepared to deal with at least two threats at any given time. And when a god shows up, well, just start praying. Cho’s standalone story is a brilliant blend of reality and the supernatural set against the vibrancy of Malaysia. Explore identity, family, and pervasive pasts through the eyes of a young woman trying to find her place in the world.
Having successfully raised a smart and capable daughter in the U.S., Jessamyn’s parents decide it’s time to move back to Malaysia. Jess graduates from Harvard and follows her family, with hopes of beginning a career in Singapore with her secret girlfriend. Until then, she moves in with an aunt and uncle, exposing Jess to a parade of opinionated family members who ask relentlessly about men (not interested) and jobs (not looking good). The situation is so stressful Jess begins hearing voices. Well, technically, one voice, and it turns out to be her estranged and most definitely dead grandmother, Ah Ma. Jess discovers she’s a medium, and her grandmother has unfinished business with the fifth richest man in Malaysia. Jess gets caught up in a plot that upends her life, putting her face to face with powerful men and even more powerful gods.
Black Water Sister has only one POV–Jessamyn Teoh–but she has many identities. There is the Secret Keeper, who carefully carved out a private life with her girlfriend in college. There is the Dutiful Daughter, who obsesses over her parent’s wellbeing as they struggle to regain footing in Malaysia. Then there is the Medium, who must honor her dead grandmother and carry out her bidding. All three begin to intersect when Jess arrives in Malaysia, and it’s a struggle. She’s constantly hiding a part of herself and questioning what role she should play. Cho does a masterful job of intersecting the real-life struggles and supernatural ones, making each one feel weighted and real.
Cho easily guides us into the world of ghosts and gods through Jess’s abilities as a medium. I loved watching her come into her power by getting reacquainted with her fierce Ah Ma. And I thoroughly enjoyed Ah Ma’s snarky commentary as Jess stumbles her way through the plot. Try going about your day while your no-bullshit, dead grandmother yells in your head. Ah Ma also has violent tendencies and favors the term “bastard.” It will be said and it will be said often. Jess’s ability is intertwined with the gods of Chinese Mythology as well. Jungle temples are trying to survive in the city limits, and altars are numerous. Gods are interacting with the world and communicating through their chosen mediums. The reader gets to tag along and learn with Jess as she’s thrown into the beliefs and superstitions surrounding the gods.
The world in Black Water Sister is, well, our world. But add a little bit of spice. Yes, there are ghosts, but Cho also showcases how the lines are blurring between the traditional and modern world. Ah Ma’s jungle temple is nestled behind a hawker stall selling food to tourists. Jess sits in a Starbucks discussing the whims of gods without her guest batting an eye. Construction site workers building luxury condominiums leave offerings for protection and know to blame a wrathful god when things go wrong. Hipster cafes pop up, emulating an atmosphere of Malaysia’s past. It’s a fascinating place that remains rooted while shifts forward at the same time, and it’s the perfect backdrop for Jess who also weaves in and out of different worlds of her own.
Black Water Sister is one of the most unique reads I’ve had this year. It is a strong standalone with a neat ending, but I fell for Jess hard and would have loved to see where her story goes. Luckily, my time with Zen Cho’s storytelling doesn’t end here. I can explore her previous works with the ferocity of one of Ah Ma’s stinging remarks.
Rating: Black Water Sister – 8.0/10