Black Water Sister by Zen Cho – REVIEW


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.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan.
Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

“It figured that she’d avoided getting nagged to go to law school, only to get nagged to become a vessel for the dead.”

Today is my turn on the bookstagram and blog tour for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. This book was bonkers in the best possible way and was an exhilarating ride from start to finish. Jess moves to Malaysia with her parents after nineteen years in the US and realises her cantankerous grandmother is haunting her. And so begins a tale of vengeful gods, gangsters, and grandmothers.

“She was a hole punched out of a sane world, a channel for the sublime – or the horrific. Through her, the unthinkable was made real.”

The women in this story absolutely shone through the narrative and their feistiness had me laughing more than once. The history of the Black Water Sister was harrowing and an exploration of female rage formed the backbone of the book, especially through the characters of Jess, Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister. This internalised rage manifests in different ways for each character and finding the courage to confront it might be the only way forward.

“Maybe that was what true love meant: a bitterness that stayed on the tongue when everything else had faded.”

Penang was beautifully evoked for the reader and the author captured the atmosphere perfectly. It’s worth checking out the Book Trail for more information about the settings used. The prose was rich and detailed, and the dialect added a beautiful authenticity. There’s also a fascinating article with the author on the Pan Macmillan website all about the choices she made when writing about her culture for both Western and non-Western readers. If you want a book that will take you on a wild ride then I’d highly recommend Black Water Sister.

(Goodreads | Amazon UK | Book Depository |

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