The Black Isle

Written by Sandi Tan
Review by Viviane Crystal

Cassandra, Li, and her father live in Shanghai in the 1920s. Li is favored by her father and Cassandra (or Ling as she is called then) gets in a great deal of trouble because of her ability to see and sometimes commune with ghosts. This isn’t an occasional thing; the “dead beings” are everywhere she goes, usually depressed, macabre appearances that complain, are silent, or carrying out acts of destruction and melee in their restless, unhappy state.

When Cassandra’s father loses his job as a teacher, they are forced to move to the Black Isle, one of many small Malaysian islands where poverty and manipulation by the foreigner owners is the norm rather than the exception. After her father becomes the manager of a British-owned rubber plantation, the tenor of this story becomes more haunted and grotesque than anyone could imagine. Superstition is obviously rife and with good reason; ghosts haunt and murder without apology. Perverse, grotesque scenes galore fill these pages that are hard reading for those with less tough skins. Horrific misunderstandings lead to the destruction of their livelihood, and they move back to the main city.

The years pass with the family subsisting but Cassandra links up with the Japanese after their invasion and then with the Communists years later. Through it all, Cassandra’s life spins between her sense of control and her real understanding that the supernatural apparitions have long memories and will rule the destiny of the living forever! The Black Isle is hard to summarize and classify with regard to history, but it is sure to be a bestseller for those who love a well-written novel saturated with horror and the macabre.