The Black Isle by Sandi Tan (pub date 8/7/12)
“All my life, people have tried to erase me, in big ways and small, publicly and privately, thoughtlessly and with supreme, awe-inspiring malevolence. All my life. But I refuse to let them win. They will not wipe me out. I will not become a ghost.”
From a new voice in fiction comes this epic debut about the ghosts (both figurative and literal) that haunt our lives. When I read the description in “Publisher’s Weekly,” I knew this would be both a strange and interesting story.
The Black Isle is a coming-of-age story, both for the protagonist and the island she lives on. Ling is a Chinese girl born in 1920s Shanghai. Those she and her twin brother Li live a life of privilege, they are often neglected by their parents. Ling and Li are inseparable, until a strange event on their seventh birthday causes a rift in their relationship. After this event, Ling starts to see ghosts everywhere she goes. She would come to find this both a gift and a curse.
When their father loses his job as a professor, their mother demands that he leave China to find work, and that he take Ling and Li with them. The trio travels to the Black Isle, a place filled with poor immigrants, jungle, and more ghosts. Ling’s life journey takes her from working on a rubber plantation, to falling in love, to being forced into a pseudo marriage with a cruel Japanese military officer during the island’s occupation. She changes her name to Cassandra, which is fitting since the Cassandra of Greek mythology had the gift (and curse) of prophecy.
Cassandra continues to see ghosts all throughout her many trials, and her relationship with these ghosts changes as she gets older. As a child, she is not afraid of them and accepts them as part of her life. As an adult, she learns how to channel their power and manipulate them…at great cost. As an old woman, she fears becoming a ghost herself. As the story progresses, the ghosts become a symbol of the island’s past. Cassandra’s friend Kenneth, who becomes the Prime Minister of the island, says he wants to rid the island of the ghosts. But in his efforts to modernize the island, he ends up creating ghosts of his own.
This is a sweeping, cinematic story, with way too many details and plot developments to write about in one blog post. The prose is excellent and the characters are rich and well made. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn that Sandi Tan studied screenwriting, because her characterization and plot development are amazing. Cassandra is a fascinating protagonist, full of inner conflict. The story is not only gripping, but it gives a lot of insight into Chinese culture in the early 20th century, as well as insight into the Japanese occupation during World War II.
If you enjoy historical fiction or stories about Asian culture, you’ll definitely enjoy The Black Isle. It’s a rich story with some creepy supernatural elements and occasional erotic imagery, and it’s sure to leave an impression on you, as it did me.