Wednesday, August 1, 2012
REVIEW: The Black Isle by Sandi Tan
Ghosts that no one can see. No one...except Cassandra.
Uprooted from Shanghai with her father and twin brother, young Cassandra finds the Black Isle's bustling, immigrant-filled seaport, swampy jungle, and grand rubber plantations a sharp contrast to the city of her childhood. And she soon makes another discovery: the Black Isle is swarming with ghosts. Haunted and lonely, Cassandra at first tries to ignore her ability to see the restless apparitions that drift down the street and crouch in cold corners at school. Yet despite her struggles with these spirits, Cassandra comes to love her troubled new home. And soon, she attracts the notice of a dangerously charismatic man. Even as she becomes a fearless young woman, the Isle's dark forces won't let her go. War is looming, and Cassandra wonders if her unique gift might be her beloved island's only chance for salvation . . .
My Thoughts: The Black Isle caught my interest because of the setting of Asia during WWII and the promise of a good ghost story. The book is totally not what I was expecting. It begins with the introduction of an old woman who visits her library and checks out a certain book as a way to revisit her unusual past. On one such visit she realizes that her beloved book has been vandalized and upon receiving calls from a persistent professor intent on discovering the old woman's history, she learns that her book is not the only one which has been defaced. All books making mention of her have been suffering the same fate. After realizing someone is trying to erase her from existence the old woman decides to recount her history via tape recorder-and so begins the life story of the little girl Ling who would become Cassandra-the woman with the ability to see ghosts.
Ling's story begins as an eight year old girl who is constantly in the shadow of her twin brother Li. The two are inseparable until an odd incident in a park drives them apart. With the Shanghai economy worsening due to the war and occupation by the Japanese imminent the family splits in two with Ling and Li accompanying their scholar father to the Black Isle to look for work while their mother stays in China with the two younger twins. Before their departure Ling has an encounter with an apparition which she hopes is a one time deal but when they reach the Black Isle she discovers the place is crawling with ghosts and only she can see them.
The writing here is striking and it sucked me in immediately. The little synopsis given above is just the beginning for Ling. The book is the unlikely story of Ling who grows into womanhood as she starts to recognize the power in the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Some are malevolent, some are lost souls, almost all want something to be satisfied and Cassandra is the only person who can deliver that. Cassandra (a name Ling chooses for the Cassandra of Greek mythology who is gifted with prophecy but cursed because no one will ever believe her) grows up amidst the changing climate on the island-occupied by the British when she first arrived, then later invaded by the Japanese. She endures much through the changing political climate. I will not give away the rest of the story other than to say Cassandra is placed in a lot of interesting situations both because of her unique ability and because of the happenings on the island. The author has a way with words that kept me reading right along to the end no matter what happened- an ending which was quite unexpected.
I enjoyed the story overall but there were a lot of strange elements which put me off a bit and a some sexual elements that were almost a bit too much for me. There is also quite a bit of violence throughout the story but personally this did not bother me too much. Without giving too much away there is an incestuous relationship in the book as well as a bizarre encounter between a character and a sea creature. Cassandra uses her sexuality in the book quite a bit to achieve her means or as a means of survival. There are times when she is not given much choice in the matter. In general I am not one that is too fond of books with a paranormal bent but this one was quite different from anything else I've read in recent memory. If you like books that are a little bit on the strange side and are not bothered by questionable developments then I would recommend checking this out. I was really captivated by the writing and will be checking out Sandi Tan's works in the future even if some of the more aberrant parts of this story creeped me out a bit.