Summary: Quick-witted, ambitious Ji Lin is stuck as an apprentice dressmaker, moonlighting as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s Mahjong debts. But when one of her dance partners accidentally leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, Ji Lin may finally get the adventure she has been longing for.
Eleven-year-old houseboy Ren is also on a mission, racing to fulfill his former master’s dying wish: that Ren find the man’s finger, lost years ago in an accident, and bury it with his body. Ren has 49 days to do so, or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.
As the days tick relentlessly by, a series of unexplained deaths racks the district, along with whispers of men who turn into tigers. Ji Lin and Ren’s increasingly dangerous paths crisscross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms, and ghostly dreamscapes.
Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger pulls us into a world of servants and masters, age-old superstition and modern idealism, sibling rivalry and forbidden love. But anchoring this dazzling, propulsive novel is the intimate coming-of-age of a child and a young woman, each searching for their place in a society that would rather they stay invisible.
Thoughts: Yangsze Choo’s books are ones that are delightfully hard to classify. The Ghost Bride was a sort of historical supernatural mystery/romance. The Night Tiger, Choo’s most recent standalone novel set in 1930s Malaysia (then known as Malaya) is something similar, though the supernatural elements are considerably toned down compared to The Ghost Bride. That’s not to say that there aren’t any such elements to the story, and indeed they play a large part in the story’s narrative, but they’re woven into the story in such a way that it would be easy to overlook them, to dismiss them as historically and locally accurate superstitions that influence characters but are not real and tangible things.
The story begins with Ren, a houseboy to a recently-deceased doctor who has charged Ren with finding his missing finger and returning it to his grave no more than 49 days after his death, so that his soul can rest easy. Ren, loyal to his former employer, does so by going to the house of William Acton, another doctor, and one who is connected to the missing finger.
Ren’s sections (which sometimes are written from Acton’s viewpoint as well) as interspersed with first-person chapter from the perspective of Ji Lin, a young woman apprenticed to a dressmaker but who also works part time at a dance hall in order to make enough money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. Dance halls were not always socially acceptable places to go or work, so Ji Lin does this on the sly. Things go as normally as they can for her until one day a Ji Lin finds herself in possession of a very odd object lost by a dance hall patron: a preserved severed finger. Together with her stepbrother, Shin, the two try to discover and return the finger to its former owner.
Naturally, this ties back into Ren’s sections of the book, and even though all the characters have their own equally complex backstories and personal motivations, they all seem to be working together toward a common goal, even if they don’t always share the same thoughts on what that goal is. Both Ren and Ji Lin want to return that finger to its former, erm, body, though Ren has a much clearer idea of who that is.
The supernatural elements I mentioned mostly focus in 2 areas. The first ties back to the idea of 5 Confucian virtues, and it’s mentioned repeatedly, from both Ren and Ji Lin’s viewpoints, that they both are named after virtues and have siblings that are similarly named after virtues, but that there are only 2 of them, rather than a complete set of 5. Ji Lin and Shin are 2, Ren and his deceased brother Yi are another 2, and there’s a running plot about discovering the 5th virtue, Li. Ji Lin finds herself occasionally slipping into a sort of afterlife while she sleeps, where she talks to Yi, who admits, over time, that from his position there he can influence some things in the living/waking world, and that the missing 5th virtue from their set is… flawed, on some level greater than the rest of them, and is doing things to spin their harmony off balance.
The 2nd supernatural element is, at least to me, the most fascinating piece of the book’s mystery, because it never gets resolved conclusively. Ren’s former employer, Dr. MacFarlane, officially died of malaria, and it was the high fevers that supposedly caused the delirium at the end of his life. He went on long walks at night, came back dirty and disheveled, talking about how far he went and what animals he killed. Then would come news that such an animal had been killed by a tiger, roughly the same distance away that MacFarlane claimed he roamed. There are superstitions mentioned about weretigers, people who straddle that line between human and beast, and there’s a lot of leading information that suggests MacFarlane really was a weretiger, that he did change his skin at night and roam around as a tiger. The reports of tiger attacks in the area stopped after MacFarlane died. What else could he have been?
Except that we really don’t get any conclusive, “Aha!” moment as to whether or not this is true. It could have been coincidence that the tiger attacks stopped after MacFarlane’s death. He may have walked so far in his fevered state and somehow seem things that his mind told him later were personal experiences, the way reality twists sometimes when fevers rage. When people are discovered dead and with signs that they were mauled by a tiger, I started to wonder if MacFarlane’s spirit was responsible for those deaths, but the book does give a much more mundane explanation for them.
Of course, the book also gives a mundane explanation for MacFarlane’s claims, too. There’s nothing conclusive to say that he wasn’t capable of the things he claimed, but also nothing conclusive to say that he was. It’s part of the connection between the main characters, and given that it’s the book’s title, it’s easy to see how it’s all relevant, but it’s an element that could go one way or the other. And frankly, I like that. I’m a firm believer that while the supernatural should have rules, it shouldn’t always be easily explainable. There should always be some ambiguity, because it’s ambiguous in real life. Is it real, or is it superstition and interpretation?
I won’t go into any detail about the identity of the 5th virtue, because that will ruin a good deal of the mystery for many people, but suffice it to say that I figured out who it was shortly after one particular character was set firmly as a candidate for being the Li of the set. If you approach this story as a historical mystery, it’s a fair bet that the first suspect/candidate isn’t going to be the right one in the end, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that it isn’t Acton. But with the hint of Chinese names in mind, the correct identity occurred to me pretty soon after that reveal. That being said, I know that a lot of people reading this book won’t have my background to give them that extra clue, so the 5th virtue’s true identity will likely stay safely hidden until near the very end of the book, when the pieces really start to fall into place. Choo is utterly brilliant at weaving together a complex mystery in that way, and I loved being strung along as the story went.
I do want to take a moment to talk about the romantic elements of the story, because it is a complicated one that I think will turn many people off. Reading The Night Tiger came hot on the heels of me reading a piece online about the trope of romance between stepsiblings or adopted siblings, and the pervading belief that it’s okay because they’re not “real siblings.” And how that does a vast disservice to many types of families that are doing their best to actually be families despite cultural opposition. Now, I’m not saying that the author was taking a stand and stating that such families aren’t real families, but I can absolutely understand why this content would be a deal-breaker for some people.
As it was… Ji Lin’s mother and Shin’s father married each other when their kids were both in their teens. They didn’t grow up with each other, and the family dynamic for them was different. It’s also made clear (albeit much later on in the book) that Shin had an interest in Ji Lin practically from the beginning, so it wasn’t as though he saw her as his sister/stepsister first and came to develop a romantic attraction to her after that. Ji Lin saw their relationship as complicated, trying to be family and yet also denying that they were family at different turns, and suffering a crisis of self and conscience when she realized she was becoming attracted to Shin. I thought that it was a pretty good presentation of the issue, presenting it neither as inherently right or wrong, but a personal thing that depended very much on circumstance and dynamic and that neither one of them should just rush into no matter how much they might want to. I didn’t have a problem with this particular presentation, though, as I said, I can see why some people might.
(That being said, I want to state that just because I didn’t have a problem with the relationship in this one particular novel doesn’t mean that I don’t have a problem with stepsibling or adopted sibling romances in other novels. I have seen a fair number of, “It’s okay because we’re not really siblings” romances where the two have grown up side by side for most of their lives, where there’s no more than a token, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” argument, and then nothing more because apparently romance is supposed to trump everything. I am very much not okay with that, or the mentality behind it.)
The Night Tiger was a fantastic piece of historical fiction, with a strong mystery element strung through with folklore and the supernatural and an uncommon cultural flavour tied to the location and history. It’s a rare gem in speculative fiction, something that crosses genre boundaries and declares itself to be unique, original, and highly compelling, even to those who don’t usually read much speculative fiction. It has vast appeal, and it’s always a treat to find such a book. I loved it even more than I loved The Ghost Bride, and that’s saying something. If you enjoyed Yangsze Choo’s previous novel, or you enjoy historical mysteries, or you just want to know what the hype is all about, then absolutely pick up The Night Tiger when you get a chance. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss out on.