Twists and turns in a tale peopled with dark forces

"The Black Isle" is author Sandi Tan's debut novel.
"The Black Isle" is author Sandi Tan's debut novel.
Posted: August 04, 2012

The Black Isle

By Sandi Tan

Grand Central Publishing. 480 pp. $24.99


She's an old Asian woman who lives by routine - making weekly visits to the store, to the laundry, doing what old women do.

Most important, she goes to the archive section of the library every Saturday to visit the book - the book that contained her photograph, surrounded by a story filled with lies but that revealed one truth: She can communicate with ghosts.

Then, one Saturday she finds the book she's been quietly visiting for decades has been vandalized. Most of the pages have been torn out. In the photograph, her head has been blackened out with marker. A feeling of dread descends upon her - someone, she decides, is trying to erase her life.

As she slowly makes her way back to her apartment, she sees two crows collide and then plummet to the ground. That, she decides, can't be good.

Later that evening, she receives a telephone call from a woman who identifies herself as a university professor writing a book on "superstition in 20th-century Asia," and asking for an interview. The professor punctuates her request with an ominous statement: "Someone - and this person or persons must really be obsessed - has been cutting you out of history."

The old woman hangs up, deciding she will not let herself be wiped out. "I will not become a ghost."

The Black Isle, the debut novel of Sandi Tan, tells the story of Ling, born to a middle-class family in 1922 Shanghai. She has a twin brother, Li, and a set of younger twin sisters. Ling's mother is agoraphobic, and her father is a quiet, hen-pecked schoolteacher.

She sees her first ghost when she's 7 - one of her mother's former housemaids who killed herself when Ling was an infant. The uproar created when she lets the household know about her vision leads her to vow not to mention her spiritual abilities again.

Shortly afterward, the family's fortunes take a drastic turn for the worse. The Great Depression that followed the 1929 American stock market crash makes its way around the world, and Shanghai is not spared. The family's savings are erased and the family patriarch loses his job. The only thing to do, the parents decide, is for the father to travel to the Black Isle to work and send his salary back to support the homestead. It is also decided that Ling and Li will accompany their father.

And it is while living in the Black Isle - actually, a band of tropical islands in the South Seas - that Ling's spiritual powers seem to go wild. She sees ghosts everywhere and spends most of her time trying to ignore their questions regarding their deaths or the whereabouts of their loved ones.

At one point, her father becomes the caretaker of a rubber plantation that is not only filled with ghosts that Ling alone can see, but that is supposedly haunted by pontianaks - spirits of women who die in childbirth. When a pontianak attacks Ling's family, she decapitates the supposedly mythical creature after it kills a visitor.

Shortly after, Ling separates from her brother and father and finds employment as a companion for the rich Wee family. World II looms, and the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Black Isle forever changes Ling's life - and she becomes an important part of the Black Isle's history. Her contribution is so important the few who know about her role realize the Black Isle might never have made it into the 21st century without Ling's help. So why would someone want her removed from the history books?

Beautifully written, with a storyline that spans 70 years, The Black Isle is a historical novel that is both breathtaking and haunting. The characters are vivid - some simply charming, some horrifyingly scary - and the plot has so many twists and turns it seems as though you're reading a winding country road.

There are some plot points, however, that some might find a bit more than controversial, including a somewhat incestuous relationship and an incident of bestiality that, to be honest, is so mind boggling it's hard to believe. And because the episode did nothing to move the plot forward, it probably would have been best to simply excise it from the story.

Minor flaws notwithstanding, The Black Isle is an engaging and engrossing novel that will absolutely captivate you and should not be missed. It will take you on a journey you will not soon forget.


Karen E. Quinones Miller is the author of "Satin Doll" and the forthcoming novel "An Angry-Ass Black Woman."

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