Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

It’s seldom that I get to plunge into an alien culture that is both contemporary and right here on earth, but Black Water Sister by Zen Cho lets me do just that. Set in provincial town in Malaysia, it depicts a culture I knew absolutely nothing about and was thoroughly fascinated with.

Jess is a daughter of Malaysian immigrants to the US, a Harvard graduate who should’ve had a great future ahead of her, only things haven’t gone the way she’s planned. When her parents face financial ruin, they decide that returning to the country they’ve left almost twenty years ago is the only solution. As their only child, Jess returns with them, her filial duty clear and simple to her. She leaves behind a girlfriend she hasn’t told her parents anything about, and an uneasy identity as not quite American.

But it turns out she’s not quite Malaysian either. Living with family members she hasn’t seen in years brings home how alienated she is from her cultural heritage. Add to that the stress of settling to a new country, finding a job, and hiding that she’s gay from her family, she’s not at all surprised when she starts hearing a voice of a woman who claims to be her grandmother who’s passed away a year earlier.

Jess needs to adjust her entire worldview to accept that she’s really haunted by her Ah Ma. Then she sets out to find out why Ah Ma hasn’t moved on. A development company is about to build houses on a temple where a vengeful goddess, Black Water Sister, is worshipped. Ah Ma tasks Jess to save the shrine.

Things aren’t as simple as that. The development company is run by a crime lord that Ah Ma seems to have a personal hatred for and getting involved with the affairs of mafia and gods puts Jess’s life at risk. It doesn’t help that Ah Ma is keeping secrets from her that might explain the whole sorry affair.

This was a wonderful book. It starts small and grows in scope and depth as the story continues. Malaysian culture comes to life in language and customs. Nothing is overly explained, yet I became totally engrossed in the alien world. The speech-patterns were especially delightful. As Jess sinks deeper into the affairs of the gods, the story becomes more familiar; gods are selfish, petty, and vengeful whether the story is set in a real world or a fantasy one.

The mystery is intriguing, but in the end it’s a story of three women in three different eras. Two of them have had their choices taken from them. Jess still has her life ahead of her, but she’s in a prison of her own making, as her girlfriend points out. It takes a goddess and a ghost for her to find freedom to make her own choices.

I received a free copy form NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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