Black Water Sister (2021) – Zen Cho

Title:Black Water Sister
Author:Zen Cho
Publisher/s:Pan Macmillan/Macmillan
Date Published:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: Pan Macmillan SA kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Jess has just moved from America to Malaysia. It is the country where both of her parents were born, and Jess, now in her twenties, has moved back to their home country with them. Malaysia is a foreign place to Jess, filled with unfamiliar customs, traditions, and a culture that is steeped in religion, and the worshipping of a variety of different gods and goddesses. It’s not home, but for now, she needs to make it work until her parents find their feet. And Jess finds her voice.

Back in America Jess has left behind not just what she knows, but also who she loves. She has a girlfriend, Sharanya, and they are in a relationship her parents know nothing about. Moving to a new country with her parents, and living with nosy relatives in the meanwhile has not exactly opened up the doors for ‘coming out’. Jess spends the first few weeks of being in Malaysia missing her girlfriend and talking to her on her phone under her blankets late at night. During the day her intentions are to find a job, but that ends up being the last thing Jess manages to find in this new and exotic world.

Before Jess can find herself though she will first have to deal with the sudden appearance of her deceased grandmother’s voice in her head. You see, not long after she arrived Jess began hearing Ah Ma’s voice in her head, and no, this was not a case of her elderly relative acting as a voice of reason or taking over Jess’ conscience. Her grandmother was anything but the doting grandmother with a heart of gold. She was opinionated, angry, and made a lot of enemies when she was alive…and now she’s haunting her granddaughter.

Jess can’t seem to quiet the angry voice, and her only option it seems is to help Ah Ma with the unfinished business she has with Ng Chee Hin, a very wealthy businessman from her past whom she has sworn revenge on. Helping her grandmother leads Jess to a hidden temple where the local people worship a deity known as Black Water Sister and have built a shrine to the goddess. After Jess accidentally offends the deity, she not only has her grandmother to worry about but the looming and terrifying presence of a potentially violent god that was already angry, to begin with.

As Jess becomes more invested in helping Ah Ma, she also has to try and curry favor with the gods, and help save the very same temple (home to the Black Water Sister’s shrine) that Ng Chee Hin’s son, Sherng, wants to convert into a cafe for hipsters. Her grandmother, whom it becomes increasingly evident had quite a secret life, puts Jess in the middle of some very dangerous situations, and it is all Jess can do to keep her new life a secret from both her parents, her extended relatives, and especially Sharanya. Sharanya would definitely not understand that her girlfriend was being haunted by her dead grandmother.

Black Water Sister is a novel that blends the modern world with the opposing ancient world. Cho’s characters are living in a world of technology, and rely on social media, but at the other end of the spectrum, the local people of Malaysia still place offerings at the shrines to the gods, and they do so on their lunch breaks or when they’re out shopping for groceries. It is a novel that flirts effortlessly between the human need to please our families, and at the same time make sure that we also appease the gods.

As Jess learns more about her heritage, and her new home, she also discovers a change in her parents since they have returned to their home country, and how different they were back in America. Not everything is as it seems, and Jess becomes more aware of her family’s many secrets, as she starts to build up quite a dedicated wall for herself.

Cho’s novel is a story about family, cultural clashes, and feeling disconnected. It is a story about pride, and about acceptance, and the different roles society places on us. In the center of it all, there is the element of magic realism, and it is this element that Cho so effortlessly brings to life in Black Water Sister. With its comedic banter, and regular snippets of Malaysian English and an authentic dialect, this novel sparkles with ancient wisdom woven into a modern world where contemporary characters are forced to believe in the unbelievable.

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