She begins her life as Ling, the first-born twin of a well-to-do Shanghai family. Half the family is cleaved from the other, seeking new fortune on the British outpost called the Black Isle. During the sea voyage that takes Ling, her twin Li, and their father away from everything familiar, a life-altering encounter with the ghostly world earns Ling her next name – the rather fitting ‘Pandora.’
Island life proves harsh, and their father is never able to raise the splintered family out of poverty, but independent Ling baptizes herself as Cassandra, becoming engaged to Daniel, the heir of a wealthy, powerful Isle family. When Japanese forces plunder Black Isle during World War II, Cassandra is sexually enslaved by a cruel officer who renames her Momoko; her post-war decades are spent entangled with Daniel’s childhood friend (and rival), answering to “Lady Midnight.” Finally, when she’s almost 90, the past comes knocking, which is where the sprawling novel begins: “Anyone who has lived as long as I have, and who has done the things I have, knows there will come a reckoning.”
Singapore-born Sandi Tan debuts a hugely ambitious saga of betrayal, regret, revenge, and re-invention, presented as a narrative within a narrative: a mysterious professor tracks down the reclusive Ling, which prompts Ling to record her life story as a desperate preventative to being completely erased from history. Over almost 500 pages, Black Isle packs in nine decades of dysfunctional families, rapidly changing history and geographies, interspersed with one creepy ghost encounter after another. Tan’s pacing proves disappointingly uneven, shifting from too-long exposition (the boat journey, the violent occupation, Cassandra’s abuse in her evil captor’s clutches), to decades flying by in just a few paragraphs. While Tan’s writing is convincingly accomplished, over-the-top-moments are more than a few – one twin slashing her flesh for the other to gorge on the fresh blood, the voodoo-hoodoo graveyard encounters not unlike mud wrestling; meanwhile, her crowded cast features too many one-note characters (jealous Violet, pampered Daniel, wannabe Kenneth) who mar the novel’s initial promise.
Tan, who holds a Columbia University MFA in filmmaking and is married to a former film critic, definitely shows her cinematic influence on the page. Perhaps Tan’s intention with Black Isle is to first test readers before turning them into viewers. Given her celluloid accomplishments thus far, that creative metamorphosis just might prove likely. I’ll be watching … literally.