The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The mystery of the missing finger…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I’m struggling a bit as to how to categorise it. While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to it, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. It’s not exactly fantasy, nor would I describe it as that horrible oxymoron, magical realism. It’s more like straight historical fiction where the reader is asked to accept the beliefs and what we would call superstitions of the prevailing culture as being real.

Normally, my too delicately attuned credibility meter would have been beeping hysterically and pointing to overload, but it’s done so well that I had no problem with buying into the folklore aspects. Partly, this is because the quality of the writing carries it; partly, because Choo explains clearly the cultural basis for the more fanciful elements as she goes along; and partly, because there’s a great story in here that works, to a large degree, with or without the mystical element. The folklore stuff adds an element of mild horror that gives an air of eerieness and fatalism to the overall story.

It’s told from two perspectives – Ji Lin as a first-person narrative and Ren’s story told to us in the third person. In the beginning the finger is the only apparent link, but gradually the two storylines will cross and merge. Ren is only eleven and is a total believer in the superstitions involved in the story, so that for him returning the finger to Dr McPherson’s grave is a matter of more than life or death. Ji Lin is older, educated and more modern in her outlook (perhaps a little anachronistically so at times, in fact), but even she is so steeped in her culture that she’s open to the prevailing beliefs.

I liked them both very much as characters and thought Choo used their different ages and backgrounds very effectively to show this colonial society from more than one angle. I also really enjoyed seeing a colonial society from the perspective of the “colonised”, as it were – so much British literature reflects the perspective of the colonisers, and shows the indigenous culture as foreign and strange. Here, the Chinese Malay culture is the normal one, with the colonial Brits as the oddities who dismiss as ignorant superstition whatever they don’t understand. Happily, Choo handles the colonial aspect without over-emphasising it. There’s a current tendency to portray all colonies as seething hotbeds of resentment with the indigenous people just waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their cruel imperial masters, but I felt Choo’s portrayal of two communities living separately but in one space, rubbing along reasonably well together but not fully understanding each other, was considerably more credible.

Both strands of the story, the real and the mystical, are quite dark, but the overall tone is lightened by Ji Lin’s voice. She might rail against the secondary place of women in her society and her lack of opportunities, but she’s also strong and independent, and determined to make her own decisions about her life. She adds some humour to the story and also some romance, though in line with the rest of the book her romance has darker shades to it too.

Yangsze Choo

I feel I’ve been especially vague and obscure about the plot of the book, even by my usual standards. But that’s because I enjoyed seeing the story develop for myself with no preconceptions, so I’m trying not to take that pleasure away from anyone else by telling too much. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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40 thoughts on “The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

  1. This doesn’t sound like my usual fare, FictionFan, but I mean that in a good way.. I do like solid character studies, and what a fascinating-sounding exploration of a time/place/society. It sounds as though it’s one of those stories where you’re best off going along for the ride, to put it that way. And that can be a good thing.

    • Nor mine, Margot – I really only took it to tick off another place on my Around the World tour. I’m glad I did though – it’s so well done and full of interesting insights into the society at that time. Plus the actual story is good, with all the folklore surrounding it making it even more enjoyable…

  2. You have reviewed this book beautifully! When I finished the book I reflected on how many elements there are to the story – folklore, mystery, family, social discourse, history – and am still fascinated by how Yangsze Choo managed to make all of them work so well, without writing a 500-page book. I do admit that the ending was sort of a let down to me – I wanted something a little more fantastical than sweet.

  3. When I read about that severed finger, all I could think about was the time one of Domer’s friends was working in a restaurant and confessed he’d lost a Band-aid while preparing salads! This book sounds interesting, but I don’t need anything else on my TBR… unless it’s something I can’t do without and sadly, I can do without a dark tale, especially during winter.

    • Haha – for a horrible moment there I thought you were going to say he’d lost his FINGER in the salad! Added protein, I suppose… 😉 This one is totally dark – it’s a great mix of light and dark, in fact. But I’ll let you off this time and try to get you later… 😀

  4. anything which has a magical realism or unreal element has me putting a book down rapidly so i probably wouldn’t have looked at this one but I do like books which give me an insight into another culture so I’m torn,,,

  5. I’ve just started reading this book, so I’m pleased to see it got 5 stars from you! It’s too early to tell what I think of it yet, but it seems promising so far.

  6. Oh I’m so glad you liked this one! I think I commented before that I loved the cover, and now that you’ve reviewed it, the plot seems even better. I like that it has that element of culture/folklore in it, I find it fascinating to read about that sort of stuff, especially in historical fiction.

  7. Another one for the list after your enthusiastic review! My credibility meter is set with a wider margin than yours, I think, so the unreal elements should be fine with me. I just can’t resist a good story, and a Malay setting is interesting in itself.

    • Oh, good – I’m pretty sure you’ll love this one! I think I can cope with folklore and local superstitions better than magic, on the whole. Certainly, it all seemed to fit well in this book and rise out of the story quite naturally…

  8. I really like the sound of this. I don’t mind fanciful elements so long as they fit with the story, and it sounds as if this is done really well. I may use it as a stop on my AW80Books challenge, so many thanks!

    • I only picked it to tick a country on my own AW80, which is why I love this challenge – I’ve read loads of books I wouldn’t have gone for otherwise, and have thoroughly enjoyed most of them! Hope you enjoy this one if you do go for it… 😀

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