The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, reflects an exotic world, made both strange and familiar, for being set in 1930 Malay, (now Malaysia), a world of many races, including the white “foreigners” (British colonials.) The title has been selected for the Elizabeth II Jubilee list of titles, 10 books for each year of her reign. The story combines murder mystery, a quest, a ghost realm, were-tigers, and Chinese numerology, and the mythology of Malay. Oh, and a love story.
Yangsze Choo mixes exposition and action well. Her characters are interesting, her narrative goes from a young Chinese orphan houseboy, in present tense; an educated 21-year-old young woman forced to apprentice to a dressmaker, instead of continuing school, in past tense; and an English surgeon, in present tense. I found it an interesting style point, which brought Ji Lin closer as a character.
The story starts with the houseboy, Ren, 11, who is taking care of his dying master, an old, English doctor. The man lost most of his little finger in a surgery, and wants Ren to find it and bury it with his body within 49 days, or his master’s spirit will wander, forever. The Dr. lived in Malay a long time, and was especially interested in were tiger mythology, especially after a man who identified as a were tiger, called him one, too. The Dr.’s fevered dreams are haunted with images that might be seen by a tiger hunting. Ren is disturbed by this. He has repetitive dreams of his dead twin brother, which might be more than just dreams. Ren journeys to work for Mr. Acton, an English surgeon at the hospital in another town, Batu Gajah, and on the trip from the train station, learns there have been dogs eaten by a big cat, most are guessing a leopard.
Ji Lin, 20, has taken a second job dancing with strangers to help pay off her mother’s mahjong debt—exacerbated by being taken over by a loan shark. Not one of the more acceptable jobs for a young woman, at the time, but high paying. The woman who runs the May Flower Dance hall keeps things above board, there are bouncers, and only men with tickets are allowed to approach “the dance instructors.” One day, a particularly predatory man chooses Ji Lin to dance the tango, and boasts about many things, but mostly about being lucky. So while being tortured by bad dancing, mashed toes, and wandering hands, his good luck charm falls into Ji Lin’s possession. It turns out to be the old doctor’s little finger in a small specimen jar. All Ji Lin knows, is that it’s gruesome, and wants to get rid of it properly.
The path of the finger in a specimen bottle is traced with sudden deaths, near misses, and fevers, until it is finally buried with the old doctor. Along the way, a child matures, a young woman becomes engaged in a broom closet, and a murderer is captured. To be truthful, it’s so much more complicated than that, which is the fun of reading The Night Tiger.
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, Flatiron Books, (Macmillan), ISBN 9781250175458, hardcover