Sometimes a book makes you forget everything: the water boiling on the stove for tea, the lunch or dinner that has long since gone cold. These books don’t just pull you in; they tug at the edges of your consciousness, cultivating a new reality that you can slip into as easily as an old T-shirt. Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister is one such book. It plunges readers headlong into the often troubled and usually sarcastic mind of Jess Teoh, a recent Harvard graduate with far more on her plate than finding gainful employment.
As Black Water Sister opens, Jess is adrift. She’s living with her parents and helping them move from the United States to Malaysia, a country she hasn’t called home since before she could walk. Then the voices start. Or rather, a single voice: that of her dead grandmother, her Ah Ma, a woman Jess never met. Ah Ma is bent on getting Jess’ help to destroy a real estate developer who threatens to demolish a local temple devoted to Ah Ma’s god. Although Jess resists, she soon finds that once the spirit world has marked her, it will not easily let her go. As she is forced into a world of mediums, gods and spirits, Jess must face the possibility of losing not just her autonomy but also her life.
While Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recently graduated “zillennial” living with her parents. This balance allows Cho to explore facets of Jess’ life that may be smaller on the cosmic scale than angry gods and vengeful spirits but are no less important. From Jess’ internal struggle about how (and whether) to come out to her parents to intra-family discomfort around religion, Black Water Sister peers into the evolving relationships of an entire family, not just those of a single character.
Fans of Cho’s Sorcerer Royal duology might not initially see the resemblance between her Regency-era romantic fantasy and this modern mix of horror and the supernatural. But it is there in Cho’s turns of phrase and her spare sentences as she reveals a world so real that you feel as if you could step into it. And like the Sorcerer Royal novels’ alternate England, this world will surprise you when you least expect it. Vivid and masterfully done, Black Water Sister will haunt you.