Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

What an absorbing read! Zen Cho’s twistily-plotted 2021 novel makes ghosts and gods seem as real as Facebook and Harvard. The “Black Water Sister” of her title is a god, once a human woman murdered by her husband and now both deified and hungry for revenge. She comes into the life of Jess, a Malaysian-American millenial, at a turning point in her life. First, Jess starts to hear voices, or more specifically a single voice: that of her recently dead grandmother, Ah Ma. Soon it becomes clear that Ah Ma is not quite what she seems.

And then Ah Ma’s god, Black Water Sister, pours into Jess’s head bringing with her a glut of emotions and a shocking power — the like of which Jess has never felt or seen. As events take several surprising turns, Jess finds herself defending the god’s shrine, pursued by gangsters and possessed by spirits, the mundane problems of her life dwarfed by a supernatural struggle a century old.

Many stories of haunted locations are predictable, and many fictions about encounters with spirits are sentimental. They can even feel cosy. Often they well-meaningly dramatise teen empowerment, offer a neat resolution to an historic injustice or time-slip into a safer past where the protagonist can escape present-day problems. Cho’s story does none of these things. It’s a barbed and uncompromising tale of violence against women and girls, set in the entirely recognisable world of the gig economy, cancer and burnout. Scary things are scary in this novel, and so they should be. Parents are needy, graduate jobs are non-existent, coming out is dangerous. Ah Ma seems cute until we know what she’s up to. Jess and her family seem pretty safe, until they’re not. Nothing is to be taken for granted, no expectation is guaranteed to be met.

For a western reader like me, the book was also unexpected in its rich mix of languages, dialects, magical cultures and religions. Skype I knew, but not Hokkien or “five-foot ways”. Set in Penang and with characters who are Chinese, Indian, Malay and Bangladeshi, it is delightfully uninterested in explaining itself or translating its many cultural reference points and spiritual concepts. Western readers can go look up what a “shophouse” or “Milo” is, why goddesses are “gods”, what “hantu” means or why so many sentences end with “lah”. Black Water Sister was everything I hoped it would be, evoking an unfamiliar but compelling haunted world. Cho’s story is an education as well as a pleasure to read: a tautly-structured and pacy narrative that punches and teases and, like Ah Ma, sticks around well after its apparent end.

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The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

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(Cambridge University Press, 2022)
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