We are all, regardless of background, part of an unending legacy, stretching back generations. In some cases, those legacies are so intertwined with a specific place that they never branch out, never travel. But, in other cases, those legacies spread across the globe. Anyone from an immigrant family can attest to this feeling, of belonging to a culture or people that did not originate wherever you live. For some immigrants, they try to hold onto this legacy and culture wherever they move, creating distinct communities within communities. Others, however, prefer to do their best to assimilate—a process we call Americanization in this country—and allow their children to grow up as full members of their new nation. But that does not erase the legacy that follows those children of immigrants, sometimes resulting in a situation where the children feel out of place everywhere they go.
Black Water Sister is the latest novel by Zen Cho, and is very interested in examining how the newer generation are affected by the will of those who have come before. In crafting this new novel, Cho has brought fantasy in the modern-day world, and into a setting we normally do not see in Western literature: Penang, Malaysia. Born and raised in Malaysia, Cho now lives in the U.K., but it seems clear from this book that she has not left that previous life behind. Black Water Sister follows our heroine, Jessamyn “Jess” Teoh, as she moves back from the United States to Penang with her parents, rejoining the rest of their family. In Malaysia, Jess feels out of place—she does not speak the languages well, and is a closeted lesbian in a homophobic family. If it were just about the family drama and culture clash of being the lone American in a Chinese-Malaysian family, that would be fascinating enough, but Cho introduces the fantasy wrinkle early on. Jess is being haunted by the spirit of her deceased grandmother. Ah Ma has unfinished business with the living, and has unilaterally decided that Jess will be the tool finish that business.
Some of the best novels are those where the setting is just a major a character as the living characters, and Cho follows closely in that legacy. Every time Jess ventures out of the house and into the streets of the city, Black Water Sister easily crafts the mental imagery of Penang for readers. It is simple to close your eyes and see the tight alleys, to feel the humidity and heat sticking to your skin, to smell the aroma of food being cooked at the various stalls, and to hear the cool mixture of multiple languages being used interchangeably. But the book does not push Jess, or readers, into the outside world all at once. During the first few chapters, Jess spends most of her time at her aunt’s house, where her family is staying, representing her relationship to Malaysia as a whole. She is an outsider, and does not get to experience what it is really like to live there. At the start of the novel, it is made clear that while Jess was born in Malaysia, she has spent her entire life since the age of four in the United States. However, as the book progresses, Jess spends more and more time out of the house experiencing Penang, until she reaches a level of comfort navigating the place alone. But, even then, she never sees herself as a permanent resident. Even after adapting, there will always be an element of otherness to her.
Jess herself is a great character choice to follow for this novel, and she already has enough conflict in her life without the supernatural elements for Cho to ensure that she truly is a well-rounded character. She is the only daughter in a Chinese family, and has lived her life with all of their expectations placed upon her, up to enrolling and graduating from Harvard. Even once she is back in Malaysia, not having been able to find a job in the months since graduating from college, her extended family still maintains that pressure, even if they may not be doing it intentionally. Consequently, it is clear from the outset to both the reader and Jess’ girlfriend, Sharanya, that Jess has developed a complex over this; a feeling that she “owes” her parents an unpayable debt for what they have sacrificed for her. On top of that, Jess is very much still in the closet, not having told anyone in her family that she is gay, causing tension with her girlfriend, already under strain due to the long-distance nature of their relationship. To her family, she is obedient, and she leans into that once Ah Ma, her grandmother, begins haunting her and demanding her help. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that her behavior is a defense mechanism, a deflection. As she gains more and more control of her life, and the plot, and as she allows herself to actually feel her repressed emotions, this obedience fades away. I could not imagine this novel with any other main character.
There are a few important side characters—such as the main villain, Ng Chee Hin, his son, Ng Shreng Hin, Jess’ uncle, whom she calls Ah Ku, and Jess’ grandmother, whom everyone calls Ah Ma—but arguably none is quite as important as the titular Black Water Sister. A god, or powerful spirit, it is her present that drives the supernatural plot forward, and allows Jess to learn to take control of her mundane life. The sister is a vengeful god, apparently seeking blood and willingly helping those who seek the blood of evil men. In her life, Ah Ma was the medium of the god, a person capable of channeling the power of the god and enacting their will in the mortal realm. While it initially appears that the Black Water Sister is not going to be a major player in the plot—she is initially introduced as an antagonistic force to be dealt with—that changes once we, and Jess, learn more about her origins and domain. The first half of the book presents itself in almost a buddy-cop format, with Jess and Ah Ma working together to look into a gangster who wants to demolish the temple which houses Black Water Sister’s shrine. But, mid-way through the novel, a new inciting incident occurs and drastically changes the landscape of the plot and the god’s role in it.
If there is one point of criticism is an otherwise excellent book, it would be that we do not see too much of Jess’ life outside of her family. We learn early on that she is a lesbian in a relationship, but there are very few scenes actually featuring her girlfriend, and the few we do get see the two of them talking via video call. It is clear that the plot of Black Water Sister does create a distraction as Jess spends less time talking to Sharanya, but we do not see very much of them to begin with. Their relationship could have been more effective had she a larger role in the book, and it would have strengthened Jess’ motivations to figure things out. And, while there is certainly already tension with her family, it would have been amazing to have a scene where Sharanya visits and they have to hide their relationship in front of everyone. However, one excellent point of tension Cho does provide is that, while Jess is still closeted, Sharanya is not, and is actively pushing for Jess to come out as well. This push-and-pull is likely familiar to anyone within the lgbt+ community. Luckily, the characterization in Black Water Sister is already so strong that the book does not really suffer or experience a set-back due to Sharanya’s reduced presence.
Overall, Black Water Sister is a fantastic read featuring an incredibly interesting cast of characters, and an intricate yet easy to understand plot that is sure to hook any reader. While it is unmistakably a fantasy novel, the supernatural serves more as a vehicle to examine Jess’ character and her relationship with herself and her family. Add to that the setting of Penang and Malaysia, and Cho has created the type of novel we do not see too often in the United States, but which we definitely need more of. While it would have been great to see more of Jess’ love life, or meet other lgbt+ characters in Penang, the characterization of the people we do meet is incredibly strong. This a novel I can easily recommend to anyone looking for a good book, fantasy or otherwise.
Black Water Sister is available in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 8 days
Next on the List: Realm Breaker, by Victoria Aveyard