Syahira Sharif's Reviews > The Black Isle

The Black Isle by Sandi Tan
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May 16, 12

bookshelves: netgalley, fictional-asia, historical, ghost, adult, witchcraft, paranormal, romance, 20s
Read from May 15 to 16, 2012

#note: i'm quite surprised that people actually read my midnight review that was riddled with grammatical errors.. lol. Even I can't make sense of what I wrote.

Truth to be told. This 90th book of my reading challenge that made the most lasting impact in all my days of 2012's reading. First of all, because the story is set in a place and in a time settings that I was (naturally) familiar with. Second, I was familiar with the characterizations and understand the ravages that plague the characters. Third, although Asian history was not on of my favourable subject but the book made it intriguing enough to make me continue reading from past midnight till dawn (it was around 6am now and last night, before my kitchen class, I had drunk a potent concoction of caffeine and chocolate that kept me awake even after my usual nightly babysitting of my fussy baby nephew) that instead of continuing sleeping on this very bed, amidst being surrounded by the warmth that I had left after sitting in avid trance at a length of time, I went on to review the book while it's still fresh.

Why suddenly I'm filled with flowery words now? I blame the book. Really.

The descriptive writing style is linear and easy to comprehend. It flows with occasional setbacks from the futures and the timeline converging itself into a memoir told by an old woman about her past. Personally, I can hardly find fault in the author's writing style and I rarely read descriptive novels. I do enjoy reading her prose despite it being too infectiously flowery. The story was written in the woman's point of views with careful fluidity of a structured storylines and it does contrast to the dark world of the darkest part of the century.

The story is narrated in several time frames from the introduction of the narrator, an old woman in the future, to the narrator's past when she was called Ying with her family in Shanghai. As a child, she had led a rather privilege life despite her growing up to an absent father, a shrewd mother, an attention-hungry twin brother, a finicky sets of sisters and the watchful eyes of her maids. Then one day, an incident tore at the relationship between her and her brother made her became sensitive enough that she began to see ghastly things in her room. As the world at the brink of the first war and as the inevitable events that surround the 20th century era finally led her father, her twin brother and herself being spirited away to a curious isle called Black Isle or Pulau Hitam, leaving her mother and twin sisters to their old house in Shanghai.

Her relationships with her two family member were strained heavily and she began to find herself occupied by a mysterious man called Mr Odell whom she eventually carry a flame for and whom she looked up to. When they arrived to the island, she immediately found herself repelled by the astral beings and divide of the caste in the new world where she have to call home. She eventually being schooled in a catholic school that was filled with haunted beings that plagued her every move and with every little things she try to do, not everything had happen as she expected.

Cassandra was a character that I was a bit curious about and had some of the traits that hated. She was a strong soul but had a hunger need to be seen but not seen. With every mistake she made, her character grew with every year and events that scarred her. She reminded me a bit of Cersei Lannister, which actually there are similarities at some moments in the middle of the story that made me stare in surprise. She sees the world in a really small frame and ambitious enough until she realized her mistake but then its too late. She was confusing and at some times can be extremely frustrating and can be idiotic. She's intriguing which made her somehow complicated and layered as a real person which made her a decent character to be read.

In the beginning of the book, I was a bit confused with the story until the end where I look up again to the beginning and saw the broken pictures that consisted of the map of the South East Asia and the curious island. Here's the deal, the Malay peninsula was severely cropped leaving anything below Perak and parts of Terengganu (Pahang, Malacca, parts of Selangor, and west of Johor) absent from the map leaving a very large dot of an island that was where the place was set in and exaggerating the island. I don't know about you, fresh water is an issue in the island, the issue that was absent in the novel. I was reading the book thinking that the Black Isle was the size of Singapore since obviously from reading the book that the whole story is a fictionalized Singapore but since the island is right on top of Johor, that was somehow a glaring historical bias especially with the portrayals of the locals in the book.

In case you're wondering, Singapore is a part of Malaya until 1965 so essentially from the map and at the end of the book, you get a feeling that most of the story does had the feeling of being sanitized. I really need to convince myself that it's just a fiction since the book does have several plot holes in its superbly superstitiously noir world.

Since the story was from the 20th century till the 21st, the story revolved around the issue of mass migrations, the social caste between the residents, the british empire, the locals superstitions, the conditions in the rubber plantation, the world war II with the Japanese occupying the Asia-Pacific, communism, the late 20th century's economy. To include a barrage of historical issue in one book is deary enough for the readers but for me, it was until the end of war (in the book) that was what made me sceptical and the plot holes became apparent enough that it left me with the feeling of half-glass empty the whole time.

Japanese war experiments was a major subplot in the book but curiously, so is the absence of British POW in the book which are prominent. Not everyone left. I actually know an English guy who told me that his father was in Malaya when the Japanese arrived. To date, his father was still mute about his experience. In history, the British soldiers were taken to concentration and prison camps. Some were killed, starved to death, made to work until they were just bags of bones. The Japanese reign in Asia pacific lasted only several years but it left a huge scar to old veterans and the locals. It is rare to find older people who are willing to tell the depravities of the Japanese in the time of war. If you look up Burmese Death Rail, you'll see that it was build by the blood of these POWs.

Even now, there are still unsolved issues in the current government especially with the higher people trying to shut down those who want to be seen such as "the comfort woman", pre-teen and teenage girls sent to various parts of the war-conquered parts to be a sexual release to the soldiers. Its also a way to control venereal diseases that plague the soldiers. So, in a way, the book doesn't give much to the readers in terms of the realities.

And it's quite fascinating that for a tale set in Nusantara part of South East Asia that there are absolute no mention of the Malay royalties and the social caste of Malays in a predominantly Nusantara area - there are Bourgeois Malays in that era, not just slaves and coolies in rubber plantation. In fact, food rationing was severe in those times that a lot of people resort to using barleys or tapioca since rice were in short supply.

I would understand it being a subject that the author wasn't familiar with but in recent year's I've experience and seen weird mystical things by superstitious people when I visited down south and honestly there's a bunch of Indonesian-related mysticism that can be explored to make the portrayed supernatural to be a child's play.

I also found the Issa is an unconvincing character for a Malay witchdoctor (some things I just had to raise an eyebrow about) that the whole thing plot around him was kind of bland and seems like something that the author simplified so much that I feel the idea wasn't being fully researched properly. I guaranteed you this, any mention of 'Malay' mysticism in this book is just a pinky dip to a vast sea of the things that you could make a whole new fiction about. But again, it is not a major grievance since I do not expect it from the author.

This year, I have being exposed to the Australian sleuth series's Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and the story was set in between the world wars like this book and does included communism mentions in the series by struggling post-WWI veterans against the British capitalist. In this book, the communism sentiments was prevalent among some of the character due to the Japanese occupation and later the British. Frankly, it was way more complicated by that. I was sort of curious why that was also oversimplified. Unlike this book, the communists rebels post-Japanese occupation was obviously based on Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, a product of the Maoist idealism and an army of people hell-bent to kill those who survived the war that are suffering the least. This is the reality that a lot of innocent people were killed while these groups are rampaging through the states seeking Japanese sympathisers and unruly enough that the British migrate people from the entire state just to avoid these communists attacking the people for food and shelter. Most of this happen in gun points.

This effectively sanitize the whole era of terror, the whole world politics involved and although it make the supernatural story that was prevalent in the book seemed plausible but at history context, there's a lot of weakness in the book.

The main issue in the book was that it was the idea that the British left the island colony upon hearing the incoming Japanese invasion that the people of the island were helpless until the end of the invasion due to the atomic bombs and when the British came and expect things to be as it is until the people rise against them.

Here's the thing, the invasion happen only days before Pearl's Harbor. It happened so suddenly that the british, who had armed the sea outposts looking for incoming soldiers, haven't expected was that the Japanese infiltrated from the thickness of indochina jungles into the peninsular using just bikes and avoiding the heavily defended sea. There was hundred of thousands British soldiers that were caught and became Prisoners of war in a blink.

I was familiar with this since I was literally drowned by the reading materials and rereadings that all of these information had stuck like a glue in my long-term memory and I do occasionally watched the documentaries of the eras, read stories of the era and listening to my family's war stories and other people's war stories. In fact, could make a whole historical fiction book based on what I kept inside my head. So, naturally I caught the discrepancies in the storylines that it was apparent that the author was made unaware of a lot of these or the editors itself felt it was harmless enough.

Well, here's the thing about historical fiction. For someone, who may not familiar of what happened with the era in this side of the world can magically became facts.

To argue about the accuracies, you could always take it to an alternate dimension take. But AGAIN, it's a bloody fiction, I just leave it to that.

Frankly, I enjoy the book since the book is magnificently well written to the end despite some of the 'things' I've encountered along reading this that made me feel like it was a bit overzealous with its shock factor attempts (there's a lot of subplots in the book that can make a person blush or scratch their heads). And after I have analysed through my thoughts and feelings after the initial awesomeness subsides, I found that I had serious misgivings about the historical aspect of the story. I would have been more forgiving had not it bug me while writing this review which influence my re-rating for the book. Most of all, since I was VERY familiar with the era and I do live in the culture and the languages and familiar with the people issues and understand a HUGE chunk of what the book is portraying, the book made me very critical to it. In a good way.

So for average readers, I do not think my issues for this book may bother you since its still a quality fiction with a storyline that was unlike anything you've read in about Asian Literature section.

However, I do think its a good book that I would recommend if you like reading a combination of some genre with prominent adult horror storylines and adult historical setting but full of adult drama and contain serious 'romance' elements. The book might be hard on the stomach but the quality of the writing is refreshing and for most parts on local flavours of this part of Asia, the story does feel natural to be read. I do expect more to come by this author.

For easier comparison, its like True Singapore Ghost Stories meet Romance in the Rain (煙雨濛濛) meet The Haunted Changi meet Memoirs of a Geisha.

The ARC is supplied by the Grand Central Publishing via Netgalley.com and will be published on 7th August 2012.

I clue you in, do pre-order this book and I'm sorry that I do a too bloody long review but what to do, it was my turf.


My blogpost for this review.

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Reading Progress

05/15/2012
1.0% "oh.. a singaporean author.. my first. hmm"
05/15/2012
1.0% "the black isle is actually singapore... hmmmmm.... good discussion materials to ask my step-grandmother"
05/15/2012
8.0% "descriptive.. surprisingly I enjoyed it. Way better approach to ghost stories than the Singapore Ghost stories volumes I've read"
05/15/2012
12.0% "since when singapore was called pulau hitam? I never heard of it before. I thought old singapore was named temasek. I'll bet 2cents my dad never heard of it."
05/15/2012
21.0% "..... .... .... ..... ... please tell me you get this..."
05/15/2012
39.0% ".... errrrrr..... ... ... .. hmm"
05/16/2012
57.0% "weird how class discrepancies among malays, chinese and indians in the beginning of the bourgeois island flipped right after the japanese occupation...."
05/16/2012
64.0% "A_A this book..... really is... poweful one... in its most disturbingly sort of ways. its like a piece of puzzle plot that had stuck in the mind. in fact, i was thinking about it all the time last night while working on bread stuffs and... in fact its rare for that to happen" 1 comment
05/16/2012
77.0% "now here's the part when its prominent that the author (as it used) "sugarcoated" the history... hmm"

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