The Black Isle

Sandi Tan, Author
Sandi Tan. Grand Central, $24.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-446-56392-5
Reviewed on: 05/21/2012
Release date: 08/01/2012
Open Ebook - 978-0-446-58270-4
Hardcover - 310 pages - 978-1-60941-783-3
Paperback - 496 pages - 978-0-446-56394-9
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-306-75458-3
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Tan’s ambitious debut is a gripping historical novel set on an exotic island in Southeast Asia during a 60-year span that encompasses the island’s primitive condition as a British colony, the WWII Japanese invasion, and its postwar transformation. Thanks to a deep natural harbor, fine climate, and convenient position between India and China, the island becomes “the shiny opal in the empire’s Far Eastern crown.” But since the heroine has the gift—or curse—of seeing the dead, this is also a gothic tale with scenes of grisly supernatural horror, its atmosphere full of dark omens and a sense of the macabre. Narrator Ling, who later changes her name to Cassandra, is born in early 1920s China. As an adolescent, she goes with her father and twin brother to the aptly named Black Island, where she lives through one harrowing event after another as she’s forced to summon spectral apparitions in order to placate the men who rule her life: her feckless father, the Japanese officer who makes her his mistress, and the ruthlessly ambitious Oxford-educated politician in whose bed she finds herself next. Tan’s imagination seems boundless as she involves her protagonist in events that force her to evade moral scruples in order to stay alive. Conveying an atmosphere of corruption, violence and betrayal, Tan anchors the narrative with authoritative details of time and place, and social and ethnic rituals. Her descriptions of the supercilious British and the arrogant, depraved Japanese are brutally candid. Her stark, knife-sharp images of horror-inducing events—a woman in sexual congress with an octopus, a schoolgirl’s body dangling from a ceiling fan, forced sex in public as entertainment for Japanese army officers, occult rites in a cemetery, prisoners forced to harvest fleas from bodies to make pathogens, sharks bursting out of an aquarium tank and devouring children, a huge gathering of ghastly corpses—are not for fainthearted readers, but the tale as a whole maintains its mesmerizing power throughout. Agent: Barbara Braun. (Aug.7)
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