Zen Cho, the Malaysian-born fantasy author who now resides in the UK, imparts a breathtaking infusion of her vibrant heritage onto the pages of Black Water Sister. Within the novel, Cho skillfully intertwines the threads of diaspora, deftly exploring the profound experiences of growing up in Malaysia, traversing across the Atlantic, and ultimately returning to one’s homeland. Cho delivers an immersive tale that seamlessly melds the tapestry of her cultural roots with an enthralling narrative.
As Jessaymn packs for Malaysia, an unexpected intrusion disrupts her already tumultuous circumstances — a commanding voice echoing within the depths of her mind. Broke, jobless, and freshly graduated, she is abandoning America to return ‘home’. But her memories of Malaysia are fragments from her toddler years, leaving her ill-prepared for its divine beings, ghosts, and her own family’s escapades. Jess soon unravels the truth — her enigmatic ‘voice’ emanates from Ah Ma, her departed grandmother, who worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. Enraged by a business magnate's affront to her goddess, Ah Ma swore an oath of retribution, enlisting Jess as her unexpected ally. As Ah Ma resorts to blackmail, coercing Jess into compliance, an internal struggle for control ensues. Nevertheless, Jess soon realises that her indomitable ancestor will not allow something as trivial as death to impede her mischief-making endeavours.
Black Water Sister is an effortlessly enjoyable novel. Its true brilliance lies within the setting of Malaysia, meticulously woven by Cho's masterful prose. Cho transports readers to a realm where the sights, people, and culture come alive with breathtaking realism. The seamless integration of urban and fantastical elements adds an exquisite layer of intrigue, as the collision between the tangible world and the ethereal domain of gods and deities, hidden from the perception of ordinary humans, captivates the imagination. Furthermore, the Malaysian setting serves as a gateway for Cho to explore the dynamics of diaspora and the notion of returning to one’s roots — the themes of home, identity, and belonging resonating powerfully throughout the novel. Through Jess's lens, we witness the nuances and juxtapositions of two distinct cultures — America and Malaysia — each governed by their unique set of customs and principles. This stark contrast highlights the complexities of cultural duality and the inherent dichotomy that shapes Jess.
Moreover, Jess is a wonderful protagonist who embodies a captivating blend of brooding introspection, unwavering resourcefulness, and a razor-sharp wit that slices through the challenges she encounters. Cho expertly handles Jess’s labyrinth of emotions that arise as a result of her queer identity, providing her readers with a deeply satisfying conclusion as we witness Jess’s transformative journey. Jess gradually embraces her true self, transcending not only the physical realm of deities but also the constraints of her own mind as she comes out to her family by the end of the novel.
Black Water Sister, with its empathetic portrayal of identity, stands as an intelligent and enchanting masterpiece.