The Black Isle, by Sandi Tan

The Black Isle
Sandi Tan's debut The Black Isle is a curious mix of the supernatural and the historical. I think this book would have worked just as well as either a horror novel or just a work of historical fiction. But by blending them, I think Tan gave up on fully developing the supernatural side of the story. I wanted to see more there, because that's what drew me to the book in the first place.

The story moves back and forth through time, staying mostly in the past, as Cassandra Ling tells her story to a historian and whatever else might be listening. Cassandra and her twin were born in the 1920s in Shanghai to lower middle class parents. When the Stock Market crashed and her father lost his job, half the family--including Cassandra--upped stakes and headed for the Black Isle. The Isle is fictional, located where Peninsular Malaysia is. When they arrive, the island is controlled by the British. The island's twentieth century history mirrors that of several other southeast Asian nations: dying colonialism, Japanese invasion during World War II, a resumption of colonialism that doesn't last, and turbulent independence.

I would have found this interesting enough, but Tan adds another layer to the story. After a strange childhood incident, Cassandra finds that she can see ghosts. Actual communication is pretty iffy, but she is able to make bargains with the dead. This gives her some measure of power once she figures it out. It's a relief that she does because she spent half her life being used by the men in her life. Even after she discovers her power, Cassandra still lets herself be used until the ghosts start to lash out against all the broken promises. Because she lets herself be used, because she doesn't know how to shake free, this is a hard book to read. There are also some pretty bizarre (but thankfully brief) sexual situations that make the book that much harder to process. Fair warning on that count.

Because Tan blended horror and historical fiction, you can't just chalk this book's message up to "This is the price of independence" or anything simple like that. I suppose you could call this Cassandra's coming of age/voyage of personal discovery story, but The Black Isle is bigger than that. The story is as tangled as the island's jungles and a lot remains un-illuminated.

I did enjoy reading this book. Tan crams a lot of story, and a lot of history, into this book. It's complex and it's original. I'd recommend it to people who like to be adventurous about their historical fiction.

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