Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Black Isle

The Black Isle is an historical urban fantasy, set mainly on a fictitious Malaysian island in the Pacific. It follows Ling, a Chinese girl with the ability to see ghosts, as she emigrates there from China with her twin brother and her father. The island is a British colony, and the story unfolds as Ling and her family attempt to make their way under European rule, and all that follows with the outbreak of WWII, and the island's fight for independence afterwards.
With every changing regime the things that were bad about the previous ones are swapped for something equally bad, or in some cases worse. The independence of the island, for example, frees the islanders from being made to feel inferior by the Europeans, but it also brings other sorts of racism and the degradation of their rich cultural heritage. The whole "grass is greener" mentality is a theme through the book, as Ling often dreams of something other than what she has, but then discovers that it is not as good as she had hoped.
The way the book was written reminded me a little bit of Memoirs of a Geisha, not only because it is set in the same time period in a similar area of the world, but because of the way events roll along softly - there are distressing and exciting moments, but no big climatic scenes. Additionally the narrator's voice, with its matter-of-factness and lush but not overwhelming descriptions is similar. (Before anyone complains, I am aware that Geisha is set in Japan, not Malaysia or China and that the cultures are different and, in fact, on opposing sides of a war for a large chunk of The Black Isle).
I liked the central character, Ling, she is a tough woman who puts everything out there and makes little in the way of apologies for some of the things she has to do. I found myself really feeling for her, even when she is making mistakes. I would have liked her to have a happier romantic ending, but I think that is because I like her as a person, rather than because it would improve the story.
A warning about the book - it isn't for the faint hearted. There are grisly supernatural scenes and some graphic sex scenes, including ones involving incest and beastiality. I was also rather upset reading about the experiments that the Japanese carry out on the islanders during the war, which are based in truth. If you are of a nervous or prudish disposition, this book probably isn't for you.
I really enjoyed this book, it was a gripping read in an exotic and vibrant setting. Even the rather unsavoury bits fitted in to the overall story, so didn't feel too much.  It is an intense saga that carries you to somewhere far away, and out of my experience, which is something I love. 
 Book: The Black Isle
Author: Sandi Tan
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Score: 9/10

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