Scoring the Book: “The Black Isle” by Sandi Tan

Title: The Black Isle
Author: Sandi Tan
Read Date: 11 October 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads Status Updates: click!
Caution: Involves some rather graphic scenes, including those that are violent and sexual in nature. Not for very young readers or very squeamish adults.

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 . . .

I admit to being a scaredy-cat when it comes to the paranormal, so I was at first very wary about reading “The Black Isle.” After a few chapters, though, I realized this wasn’t a horror novel; it’s actually a coming-of-age story of a woman who just happens to possess a supernatural ability.

The scope of this novel is quite ambitious for a debut–Cassandra’s life spans the 1920’s, the Japanese Occupation during World War II, and Shanghai’s liberation–but in general, Tan succeeds at telling a compelling story. Her style is evocative, so much so that if I could only draw or paint, I’d be able to create very detailed pictures of key scenes and places from the novel.

I told myself that ghosts were just another facet of its lush, equatorial diversity–the dead walking among the living, everybody sharing the same air, the same soil. This die-and-let-live attitude was part of the Island’s social contract.

I like that even though the story revolves around Cassandra’s ability to see and even command ghosts, Tan refrained from making this a horror-fest. The story creeped me out a lot, but not in a horribly frightening manner. The supernatural stuff feels just naturally a part of the setting and doesn’t call one’s attention so much that it was easy enough to focus more on Cassandra’s story.

And what a story she has–from pampered little rich girl to poor immigrant educated at a Christian missionary school, running a rubber plantation, marrying into a rich family, being a mistress to a Japanese officer and then to a revolutionary and later a politician. All of these stages of her life are haunted by ghosts and defined by her ability to see them, and everything is narrated by Cassandra herself, whose voice is very raw yet lyrical.

I yearned to tell Sister Nesbit that her school was swarming with horrors. Yet how could I crush the nuns’ illusions with my righteous testimony? Ghosts would have proved false the efficacy of prayer, a practice they were working so hard to instill in their 200 impressionable young wards…

Cassandra is not an easy character to like, actually. So many weird and out-of-this world things just happen to her that it’s difficult to relate to what she’s going through most of the time. But Tan does give us some room to sympathize with her. Cassandra wanted a normal and quiet life, but her powers just wouldn’t allow her to have one, so she does her best to survive; that, at least, is something that most people can understand.

This book isn’t for everybody, though; I recommend it for older teens and adults who are not squeamish. There are some rather graphic depictions of murder, violence, sex, and…well, if you ever read this, keep and eye out for the eels and the octopus. And the ghosts really aren’t the most frightening things you will read about here; it’s the living, breathing humans.

And now to Score the Book. The song that I picked is titled “One Love (한번의 사랑),” sung by balladeer Sung Si-kyung (성시경) from the soundtrack of the Korean drama “A Thousand Days’ Promise”. Yes, I now have a Korean Scoring the Book post; such is the way of geeky fan girls.

I picked this song because the melody evokes scenes from the time Cassandra lived happily (or as happily as she could manage) with her husband Daniel, and the lyrics speak to me of the time when that blissful interlude ended so abruptly because of one small but very crucial mistake in judgment that changed her life and of those close to her forever. I also thought that it would be nice to pick an Asian song for an Asian story. 🙂

There is no official music video for this song, but I found a fan video that is subbed with a romanization of the Korean lyrics and a very decent English translation.


This review is based on an Advance Readers’ Copy provided by Hachette Book Group USA (Philippines).

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