The Night Tiger
By Yangsze Choo
Read May 2019
From Choo’s website: “Yangsze Choo is a fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. Due to a childhood spent in various countries, she can eavesdrop (badly) in several languages. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked in various corporate jobs and had a briefcase before writing her first novel. “
Choo has set this novel in 1931 Malaya, the British colony that eventually became Malaysia. Eleven year old Ren is houseboy for Dr MacFarland who dies and commissioned Ren to find his finger, which was lost in the past, so it can be buried with him no more than 49 days after his death. Ren is sent to be a houseboy for Dr William Acton, a friend and colleague of his dead master, and somehow connected to the finger. Ji Lin is a young woman apprenticed to a dress-maker although she had hoped to study medicine. However her step-father suspended his support of her schooling while he is sending his son, her step-brother to study medicine. Ji Lin is trying to pay off her mother’s MahJong debts, before her step-father learns about them, by being a dance-hall girl in the evenings. One of her clients accidentally drops a vial containing a finger and Ji Lin picks it up. The reader eventually learns that the finger Ji Lin has is the one that Ren seeks.
So we have knowledge about the finger than the characters don’t have. But we, like they, don’t know so many other things. Why are so many fingers missing from the surgical specimen archives? Why did Ji Lin’s client have the finger and why did he die? Why was William’s liaison found dead in the jungle? Will his finance ever join him? What do the dreams Ren and Ji Lin mean? Are they somehow linked together beyond the finger? Is Ren’s dead master a weretiger and somehow causing the curious deaths? Will Ren be able to fulfill his master’s wishes? Will Ji Lin marry Robert just to get out of the house? And others!
The reader gladly is pulled into Choo’s many layered story. A narrator describes Ren’s story and reveals to the reader his thoughts; Ji Lin narrates her own story. Choo gives us an interesting glimpse at the multi-cultural environment of 1931 Malaya—British ex-pats in Malaya separated from their families for various unstated and unrevealed reasons; an ambiance of supernatural phenomenon which no one fully believes nor disbelieves; multiple languages from the various immigrants to the region over time and the cultures they’ve brought; the need for young women to find suitable work while seeking husbands in suitable ways; the structured dance-hall on the fringe of a suitable way for men to interact with women in a suitable way. As someone who remembers and thinks about dreams upon waking, this reader found the dream sequences and their impact on the characters quite interesting.
Choo provides the reader with just sufficient resolution to some of the story while leaving other aspects nicely ambiguous. This approach was very satisfying for this reader who wanted some specific answers but simultaneously didn’t want Choo to decide for the characters what would happen next in their lives. This is a great relief as we’ve become attached to these characters as we’ve seen them grow and demonstrate and realize they are capable of moving beyond their current situations. And as well we are nicely left wondering about the fate Dr MacFarland and his finger.