Book review: Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho

13 11 2016

Zen Cho is a Malaysian author currently living in London. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the John W Campbell award, and has won the Crawford Award. Her debut novel Sorceror to the Crown was published last year.

I confess I’d never heard of Cho when, five years ago, I first read her work during slushreading duties for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but I found her story ‘The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote’ captivating, charming, and unlike almost anything else I’d read. I was selecting stories for ASIM 54 at the time. Story selection can be a painfully slow process: it can sometimes take weeks to decide on a particular story … but I was sold on ‘Earth Spirit’ as soon as I’d read it, and it’s still one of my favourite stories from the issue.


Spirits Abroad is Cho’s first collection. The titular resemblance to the Miyazaki film Spirited Away is, I presume, coincidental, but it’s appropriate in some respects. Though the background detail in Cho’s collection (which derives much of its charm from the inclusion of Malaysian folk magic and mythology) is very different to the Japanese cultural references embedded in Miyazaki’s film, both eschew the obvious shortcuts of Westernisation, both evoke an unsettling beauty within which spirits and the living coexist, and both demand to be appreciated on their own terms, without apology. In Cho’s stories, the magic is often freighted by the characters’ dialogue, in a patois that seems (to my eyes, at least) fetchingly exotic while undeniably expressive:

“What’s this?” she said, picking up a paper polo shirt. “Where got Nai Nai wear this kind of thing?”
Ma looked embarrassed.
“The shop only had that,” she said. “Don’t be angry, girl. I bought some bag and shoe also.”
(from ‘The First Witch of Damansara’)

There are ten stories in total, grouped under the categories of ‘Here’ (Malaysia, the first three stories), ‘There’ (England, the next four), and ‘Elsewhere’ (various settings, the last three). Here are my notes on each story:

‘The First Witch of Damansara’ has three women, a mother and her two daughters, finding their way with each other whilst coming to terms with the death of the family matriarch, who may well still have her own ideas about what she expects from the afterlife.

In ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’, a roundtable discussion gets derailed by the reminiscences of an elderly schoolteacher, who reveals that she lost something very precious to her in the depths of the forest abutting her community.

In ‘The House of Aunts’, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl/vampire Ah Lee lives with her six deceased aunties, all of whom have their own firmly-held notions of postmortal social etiquette. When Ah Lee develops an attraction to a potential prey item, her classmate Ridzual, things get complicated.

‘One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland’ is set in a school for international students nestled in the English countryside. In her first week at the school, Hui Ann inadvertently initiates a war with the school’s population of pixies and finds it necessary to implement highly unusual countermeasures.

In ‘Rising Lion — The Lion Bows’, a lion-dance troupe is called to a dour London hotel for a display of Chinese culture and a spot of ghostbusting.

‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’ is a rather charming story in which Sham, a student at Oxford, seeks to defend her friend Belinda against a mysterious and persistent suitor.

In ‘Prudence and the Dragon’, Prudence, med student and poster girl for naïveté, cannot understand why the glamorous and mysterious Zheng Yi should be obsessed by her, but her childhood friend Angela believes she knows what’s behind the attraction.

The earth spirit in ‘The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote’ has left its parents’ home and ventured into the forest to find a suitable tree under which to dig a burrow of its own; but it requires the permission of the forest spirit to whom the tree belongs, and dealing with a forest spirit can try the patience of the most placid creature. This, as mentioned above, is the story I took for ASIM 54, and it still appeals very much to me: it’s somewhat more surreal in tone than the preceding stories, because there’s no human character to anchor the piece, but it manages to be funny and heartwarming nonetheless.

‘Liyana’ is a strange story, elegiac, and reminscent in some respects of Margo Lanagan’s ‘Singing My Sister Down’. Liyana is the narrator’s younger sister, a nüguo, born from a pineapple, who carries a sense of doom. I can’t say I properly understood this story—it’s perhaps steeped too deeply in Malaysian mythology to be reliably interpreted by those unfamiliar with such tropes—but it resonated.

In ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, the title character wins a lottery to the Moon, escaping Earth’s oppression and the threat of war. But her descendants have difficulty in gaining acceptance in lunar society, and the pull of a distant home remains.

The stories in Spirits Abroad deal repeatedly with the fundamental threads of love, death, family and translocation. They’re all strongly expressive, and often feature humour juxtaposed with pain. At their best (which for my money encompasses ‘The First Witch of Damansara’, ‘The House of Aunts’, ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’, and ‘The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote’, though other readers will likely prefer other stories) they’re compelling, ethereal and defiant, and Cho’s voice consistently has a clarity and a freshness that’s very appealing.




2 responses

29 12 2016
Zoe @ sporadicallybooks

I love Spirits Abroad – I think I prefer it to her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown – but I’ve rarely read reviews of it as it was never as big as SttC. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea of coexistence between spirits and the human characters being a major theme of this collection.

29 12 2016

I haven’t read Sorceror yet, but I am strongly impressed by the voice with which she narrates the stories in Spirits Abroad. I do hope the pressures of ‘big publishing’ don’t wear down that voice, and at least allow it to evolve naturally.

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