Black Water Sister by Zen Cho


This mischievous Malaysian-set novel is an adventure featuring family, ghosts and local gods – from Hugo Award-winning novelist Zen Cho.


As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans. Jess soon learns her ‘voice’ belongs to Ah Ma, her late grandmother. She worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. And when a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge. Now she’s decided Jess will help, whether she wants to or not. As Ah Ma blackmails Jess into compliance, Jess fights to retain control. But her irrepressible relative isn’t going to let a little thing like death stop her, when she can simply borrow Jess’s body to make mischief. As Jess is drawn ever deeper into a world of peril and family secrets, getting a job becomes the least of her worries.

TW: Domestic Abuse, Murder/Attempted Murder, Violence, Blood, Homophobia. 

If you offended a god, they wouldn’t stop at cursing you with some vague form of bad luck. They would fuck you up.

Zen Cho, Black Water Sister

This book is jungle-cat wild, fluidly written and stunningly unpredictable. 

The first few chapters lured me into such a false sense of security – that this would be a novel about Jess/Jessymin, a young cosmopolitan woman torn from all she knows and thrust into her Malaysian family’s lives – whilst struggling with hiding her sexuality, looking for a job and dealing with her mental health. Even when her grandmother starts haunting her, the writing style is the soft stream before a torrent of violent moments spirals Jess’s life completely out of control. 

I, for one, loved how unlikable Jess’s Gran Ah Ma is. She’s nasty, vindictive, manipulative and cruel in the best possible way – championing her family, and destroying her enemies from beyond the grave. It was a thrill to read any moment she was in, and to see the differences between Ah Ma and Jess (and more importantly, the similarities) as the novel progressed was a joy. There are scenes where the domestic abuse Ah Ma suffered is explicit, but it’s the implicit strength of character, and reminder that Ah Ma is nobody’s victim that really shines through as the key message of this novel. There’s a moment when Jess is confronted (rather violently) by a spirit of a woman who was murdered by her husband – who is vicious, and cruel, and makes Ah Ma look like a pussycat. And rather than resting on irritatingly dry tropes of moral superiority, Zen Cho leans in on the cruel reality that these women were fierce, and should be feared after they’d been wronged. That the angry spirit of a woman scorned is more terrifying than a god. 

All of this is hidden behind the veil of borderline literary writing, with moments of introspection and delicate set dressing. I felt the heat described on the construction sites, the humidity, and I felt the emptiness Jess feels in a place that has never been her home but has now become the cage she’s trapped in. 

If you enjoyed The Murder of Graham Catton, A Burning or Luster – but would like something with a ghostly supernatural element, I would absolutely recommend this book. I couldn’t/wouldn’t fault it in any way. It’s a tantalising read, and totally underhyped in my opinion. Five stars. Great work.

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