#REVIEW: Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

I have four or five of Zen Cho’s books by now, and I’m pretty certain I’ve only talked about one of them on here, her Sorcerer to the Crown, which came out way back in 2015, before the world went to hell. I’m not in the mood to bury the lede here, so I’ll put this right up front: this is my favorite of her books, and by a pretty substantial margin. Black Water Sister tells the story of Jess, an American in her early twenties born to immigrant Malaysian parents, who moves back to Malaysia with her family at the beginning of the book, with a Harvard degree under her belt but no real plan on what to do with her life.

Then her grandmother’s spirit moves into her body, and she learns all sorts of things about Malaysian religion and Malaysian gods, and she has to protect a temple from a local gangster who also happens to be the fifth-richest guy in Malaysia, while fighting with her long-distance girlfriend and pointedly not starting a relationship with the only person her age she talks to throughout the entire book, who is a guy and would be a romantic interest in any other book.

And, yeah, it turns out her grandmother is … maybe a little malevolent? Just a titch? A little wee bit? It throws some curveballs you’re probably not expecting.

That’s not why I liked the book, though. This one is a great example of a Book I Liked For the Writing, although I have fewer problems with the story than I usually do with books I enjoy in that particular fashion. The interesting thing here is that this book reads as far more personal to Cho than her previous work– she is, herself, a young Malaysian woman, and while she’s writing a character younger than her I have to assume that some of Cho’s own experiences have made it into the book. If nothing else, the way she writes Malaysian dialogue is just fantastic. Don’t know any Malaysian? Too bad, she’s going to throw some words and phrases out there and if you can’t intuit them from context you’re out of luck. That said, the dialogue in this book is almost entirely at least translated into Manglish if not explicitly written that way; most of the time the Malaysian characters are speaking English to Jess, and the deeper I got into the book the more sidetracked and fascinated I got by how the creole actually works. Malaysian uses a lot of emphatic particles that English doesn’t use, for starters– lots of ending sentences with “lah” and “ah” and “meh” and other syllables like that, and while I never quite pulled together exactly what was going on (and the damn Internet has been no help) the name system they’re using is interesting as hell too. I loved listening to these characters in a way that I haven’t in a long time; I have lots of writers I like whose dialogue I’m big fans of, but this is the first time I can think of where the author’s representation of speech in a culture I was unfamiliar with was so interesting.

(Also, and this is a minor detail, but some of Jess’ relatives are Christians, and it’s fascinating to see the way that Malaysians apparently treat Christianity as an item on a buffet of religions, to be sampled as needed. Conversion to Christianity is pondered at one point in the book as a way to get another god (no shit) to leave them alone, and they treat it about as seriously as I might ponder picking up a new pair of shoes upon discovering that my current ones hurt my feet. It’s like “Oh, we could do that,” and that’s it.)

I can’t attribute reading this one to #readaroundtheworld, as Cho is not only an author I’ve been following for a while but isn’t even the first Malaysian I’ve read this year– that honor went to Cassandra Khaw’s All-Consuming World, and I think Khaw has another book coming out in a month or so, so I’ll have read at least three books by Malaysians this year. But it definitely pairs nicely with the project, and this is exactly the type of book I was looking to read more of for the project. My one complaint? This may not be something that bothers you, but Jess is a bit of an asshole, and not always in a good way. She’s got a filthy mouth in a way that feels jarring compared to everyone else (Jess, as the only American-born, first-language English character in the book, talks significantly differently from every other character) and the couple of times she tells her grandmother to fuck off are … kind of a trip. She also does a bit too much lying in the book for my tastes; she’s lying to her parents about being gay, among other things, and while she’s got a long-distance girlfriend she’s also lying to her through most of the book, as her girlfriend is described as too rational to want to hear Jess complaining about things like being possessed by local deities and gangsters trying to kill her. It means a lot of the book’s energy is devoted to Jess keeping secrets from everyone around her, and keeping track of who knows what, and it can be kind of wearying, to be perfectly honest. But as weak spots in a book go, a young MC acting like a selfish young person isn’t necessarily the worst fault the book could have. I enjoyed this one quite a lot. I think you will too.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

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