The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Published by: Flatiron Books
Publish Date: 2019
Genre(s): Fiction, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Asian Lit, Mystery
HB&W Rating: 4
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Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository
A sweeping historical novel about a dancehall girl and an orphan boy whose fates entangle over an old Chinese superstition about men who turn into tigers.
When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.
Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.
As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Trigger Warning: This story references physical abuse, though it does not out and out describe it.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I was totally drawn in by the cover on this one. Luckily, the story matched it beautifully.
This was such an interesting read! I mean, not only did I get to learn more about cultures and a time I’m unfamiliar with, but the world building and the way the author wove the superstitions of multiple cultures into the tapestry of this story was just so good. You have Ji, a strikingly intelligent girl who has resorted to working as a dressmaker’s apprentice just to get out from under the thumb of the step-father that wouldn’t allow her to study at any higher level because she was a girl and what was the point. Fiercely loyal, Ji takes on a second job as a dancehall girl, an ill-reputable profession which is practically synonymous with prostitution, to help her mother pay off her mahjong gambling debts so that her abusive step-father doesn’t find out.
Then there’s Ren, a young houseboy who is trying to fulfill his master’s dying wish, that Ren find his amputated finger and return it to his grave within 49 days, lest his spirit be forever doomed to roam the earth as a spirit tiger. Ren’s mission takes him to the home of William Acton, the surgeon who amputated said finger, and begins to work for him under the watchful eye of Ah Long, Acton’s hired cook and house keeper.
Meanwhile, a tiger has been prowling the local town where Acton lives, and interestingly, the paw print of its left front paw is missing one of its digits. People are dying all around Acton, and always in a manner that benefits him. The married woman he has been sneaking off to meet starts to ask for money, then conveniently ends up dead, victim of a presumed tiger attack. Afraid that the police will learn of his involvement with the woman from a former patient of his, a salesman who witnessed Acton with her, Acton wishes the salesman would disappear. Lo and behold, the salesman is found dead of an apparent heart attack in a gutter.
The Five Confucian Virtues are the binding element in this book, connecting the stories of all the varied characters. Each of the major players is named after one of the Virtues: Ren, Ren’s dead brother, Yi, Ji and her step brother Shin, and a mysterious fifth Li, who according to Yi is the most dangerous one to watch out for. Yi, who hasn’t moved on like he should have, who can call to Ren and effect things in reality from his otherworldly holding place, acts as a sort of instructor, explaining to Ji that the people with the names of the Five Virtues are doing everything out of order, chaos if you will. The only way to set things right is to put them back into order.
All the connections between the people in these stories, all the threads connecting one’s story with many others, were so intricately woven into a web of intrigue and mystery. This story, steeped with the many varied beliefs, myths, and superstitions of several cultures living in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), is richly evocative and nuanced with an ethereal quality to the story. Until about halfway through the book, I never really knew if it is real or imagined, purposeful or coincidental. There was a line in the book from someone that was explaining the beliefs of other people, but she specifically stopped to say that she was Christian and so she didn’t believe in any of it. But then we go on to find, with a little help from magical realism, that just because someone doesn’t believe in another’s beliefs doesn’t make them any less “real.” I think there’s a great message there about tolerance that is worth noting. You don’t have to believe the same things as your neighbor, but you can still respect their right to those beliefs.
There were some things I was a little less than thrilled about, particularly the romance that befalls Ji. I wasn’t sure what real purpose it served, nor did it make sense of the motivations of Ji’s would-be paramour. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there. It just felt a bit off for me.
Ultimately, though, this was a fantastic story that I really enjoyed. Mystery, magic, and amazing world building, this is a sure-to-please read.
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