Book Review: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Book Review: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Book Review: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Fantasy/Mystery: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho


“The first thing the ghost said to Jess was: Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?


That is the first line of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, a genre shredding book that is a mystery wrapped in a fantasy with hints of historical fiction thrown in to make life interesting. If the first line of a book is supposed to make you want to read on, this first line succeeds.


Jessamyn Teoh was born in Malaysia but grew up in the US. After graduating from Harvard she returned home to help her mother. Jess’s father had found a job in Penang, Malaysia, and the family was returning to the place her parents still thought of as home. Jess had visited Penang many times. But her Hokkein (the dialect spoken by Chinese residents of Malaysia) was poor, her Malay nonexistent, and her heart very much in the states. She especially missed her girlfriend, a separation not at all improved by the fact she had not come out to her parents. 


Which is why when the ghost asks her about being a pengkid, it is so shocking to Jess. She is unfamiliar with the word so she asks her mother about it. Her mother tells her it is a Malay word that means “lesbian.” (Actually, the mother cannot bring herself to come right out and say it, so Jess is forced to interpret what her mother is not saying in order to discern the meaning.) Once she understands, though, she realizes that something knows her deepest secret.


That something is her Ah Ma, or grandmother, her mother’s mother. Jess could not remember ever meeting her. Her mother was estranged from Jess’s grandmother for some 20 years. They had little interaction with her uncle or cousin on her mother’s side, though Jess was Facebook friends with her cousin. Jess did not know what caused the estrangement, and she certainly had no idea why her grandmother’s ghost was speaking to her!


The ghost has some unfinished business keeping her from moving on to the afterlife. This business involves one of Malaysia’s wealthiest men, a small shrine hidden in the midst of Penang, a very annoyed goddess, a handsome young businessman, and some violent gangsters. It also involves mysteries from the past, mysteries about a young woman with two small children and another young woman who faced a violent spouse. It weaves past and present together, wraps them in a cloak with ghosts and gods, and gives them a mystery that touches lives from long ago and from right now.


Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia and now lives in the U.K. She has a profound insight into the immigrant perspective, an appreciation for the multicultural amalgam that is Malaysia, and writes with a keen sense of humor. Jessamyn Teoh is sometimes bold and sometimes timid. She is especially timid around her family, unwilling to come out to them, unable to defy them. Through her interaction with her very difficult grandmother/ghost and the even more difficult goddess of the aforementioned shrine, Jess begins to find a strength and compassion within herself that she did not know she had. The progression of this heroine is the core of this book. It is really great to see.


Not all ghost stories end with a happily ever after. I won’t give away how this ends, but it definitely ends with a very different protagonist than the woman it began with. Jess’s journey has many twists and turns, violence and danger and mystery and drama. The result is a wonderful book set in an amazing place. I loved it.


Book Review: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Book Review: Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

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