Black Water Sister by Zhen Cho – Book 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.

My review.

I had no real expectations going into this book, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as dark and as humorous as it was. Jessamyn Teoh may have graduated from Harvard, but that doesn’t stop her from being broke, unemployed and unable to come out to her parents, and she certainly wasn’t expecting to have to move back to Malaysia for her fathers job. Torn between familial loyalty and the need to be with her girlfriend, Jess spends her first few days constantly on the edge. Something that isn’t helped by the fact she can somehow hear her Ah Ma’s voice in her head. She quickly realises that her grandmother has possessed her, she has a score to settle, one that she needs Jess’ help for. But the more Jess gets dragged into the mythical world of Malaysia, the more her life is put on the line, because it’s not just her Grandmother who wants to use her body, an ancient God has her sights set on Jess, and before long she may find herself in a fight for her own body.

Jess was a fantastic POV to read this book from, having grown up in the US she has little insight into the Malaysian culture and mythology, meaning that we as the reader learn all about it through Jess’s experiences. She would never class herself as superstitious, assuming things like Gods were the stuff of tales, but when she starts to hear her Ah Ma’s voice she realises there may be more truth to the stories than she realises. She’s so unbelievably out of her depth in most of the situations which makes for some hilarious scenes, and also some on the darker side. She is witty, strong headed and far more resilient than she realises, but she lacks faith in herself and those around her.

The relationship between Jess and her Grandmother was hilarious, if not a little haunting in parts. Their interactions were by far my favourite parts of the book, and these scenes also gave us a deep dive into Malaysian culture and history. Her Ah Ma, having previously been a medium, knows a lot more about whats happening to Jess then she initially lets on, using blackmail and her knowledge to ensure Jess follows through with her plans, she may be dead, but she still has a score to settle, one she will use Jess for whether she is willing or not. The whole idea of having someone else take control of your body was a little scary, and I think Cho gives us the right blend of humour and darkness to make sure we understand the true depth of the situation, whilst also giving us a little levity to ensure it doesn’t get too dark.

Cho’s descriptions and writing style absolutely transported me to Malaysia. I had read little to nothing about Malaysian culture and beliefs before reading this and I adored getting a deep dive not only into their mythology and culture, but their familial dynamics. We see the struggle of Jess parents, wanting a better life for their daughter but having to return to the place they left after her fathers job fell through, and how they felt they had let her down.

There are some pretty graphic and violent scenes in this book including one sexual assault towards the end, which I definitely did not expect. The story started out quite light hearted and then took a turn for the darker, and when you realise the true reason for her grandmothers return and the God’s interference you understand the need for it. There are a few well placed twists and turns throughout and Cho certainly kept me guessing as to what characters I could trust.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, it had me cackling with laughter as well a cringing away from the pages, but all in all, it was a story about the bonds of family and how, even after death they can stay with us. It was also a story about revenge and how the need for it can eclipse everything else in your life until you become a husk of the person you previously were. This may be my first book by Cho, but it certainly wont be my last.

7 replies »

  1. That’s so true; this book definitely took a dark turn, and I was surprised by that scene at the end, too. I still wonder if it was absolutely necessary for it to go that way, but it was still, overall, a surprisingly funny read.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s