Title: The Night Tiger
Author: Yangsze Choo
Genre: Historical Fiction/Magical Realism
Version: ARC – Paperback
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Notable Notables: Malaysian/Chinese characters and culture
Recommended Readers: Fans of rich settings, diverse characters, and a dash of the superstitious
Both my roommate and I received ARCs of The Night Tiger, one an ebook from NetGalley and one a beautiful paperback edition from the publisher, so thank you both for each of these. This review is given in exchange and is my honest and true opinion.
Mark down Yangsze Choo as officially being one of my favorite authors. It’s unfair how wonderful her sophomore novel, The Night Tiger, is—or it would be, if it weren’t so apparent how much time, care, and hard work Choo put into her story. While I’ll go on record to say that her first book, The Ghost Bride, is my favorite of the two, there’s no denying how much I enjoyed The Night Tiger. It’s a book that will stay with me. Her style in particular is that perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism that I love to death but is so hard to find, so this is definitely going on my favorites shelf.
The novel follows three protagonists: Ren, an 11-year-old Chinese houseboy; Ji Lin, a young woman who dreams of pursuing medicine but must work as a dressmaker and moonlight as a dancehall girl, both because of her gender and to pay off her mother’s high-interest Mahjong debts; and William, an Englishman with a murky past. Their fates and those of other characters collide as Ren attempts to fulfill the final request of his late master: locate his severed finger and reunite it with his body before 49 days are up, or his master’s spirit will roam the earth as a night tiger, unable to rest forever.
With a backdrop of 1930s colonial Malaysia (known in the novel by its former name, Malaya), Choo weaves a lush tapestry, twining the paths of her characters together and drawing the reader further into the mystery behind the truth of what connects them all. Whether you’re reading a scene located in the living world or one of the train stops of the spirit world, you feel like you are there, standing right beside the characters as they experience the world around them, which for me is a true mark of someone who has mastered their craft.
My favorite characters were definitely Ren and Ji Lin, Ren for his fierce loyalty and his fortitude (and how sweet he is), and Ji Lin because of her drive and her determination to try and do the right thing with the circumstances given to her. Also, they were both interesting POVs to read from. I didn’t notice at first that Choo swapped between telling Ren’s POV in third-person present tense and Ji Lin’s in first-person past tense, but once I did, I realized the genius of it.
Using third person for Ren helped demonstrate how simplistic his views of the world are since he is a child, but Choo never made him overly simplistic. He just sounded like an 11-year-old with a limited understanding of the world, and his POV was always honest and direct. His feelings and thoughts were revealed to the reader as he had them. Using present tense also showed how focused Ren was on the present and the mission he sought to accomplish. The way he kept track of and counted down the 49 days contributed to the faint sense of urgency and fear of the future that Ren was experiencing. It also added to Yi’s fears, Ren’s dead twin brother, that Ren was going to one day forget him, since he is firmly in Ren’s past.
As for Ji Lin, being in first person with her allowed us to experience the world through her eyes, to experience her fears and struggles potently as a young woman in 1930s Malaysia whose greatest expected achievement is to get married. By being inside her head, readers keenly feel her indignation, desperation, and hopelessness as their own, but they also recognize how keenly she thinks and how much potential she has, if she were only allowed to explore it without reproach and judgment from her family and society. As for the past tense, Ji Lin is incredibly preoccupied with the past, whether it be her mother’s marriage to a stepfather Ji Lin hates, her long-standing childhood crush on Ming that’s doomed to go nowhere, and the distance she feels from her stepbrother Shin, who never really felt or acted like her family by marriage at all.
Our third protagonist, William, is deeply unlikable and unsympathetic as a person, but I believe that was Choo’s intention. The struggles with his character are shown less in the perspective and tense in which his story is told but rather by his own choices and despicable thoughts. He isn’t all bad, shown by how highly he regards Ren and recognizes his potential, but he certainly isn’t a good person, particularly to women. As an Englishman in a colonized country, he’s actually depicted as a sexual colonizer himself, avoiding fellow Englishwoman Lydia for her resemblance to his English wife and instead using and acting predatory towards Malaysian/Chinese women for their exoticism.
Through all the characters’ personal journeys is also their link to the five Confucian values: Ren, Yi, Zhi, Xin, and Li. Certain characters are meant to embody the meanings of these virtues, but part of the novel’s mystery lies in how they’re not and what is causing something to be off about all of them. Then, there are the murders that occur, seemingly by a tiger, but Ren fears it is his master, already becoming a night tiger because his missing finger has not been returned.
Every time I put this book down, I immediately wanted to come back to it because I wanted to learn how the mystery unfolded and gets resolved. Choo does an amazing job of giving readers sprinkles of knowledge here and there that reveal some truths but then add further questions. Even now that I know the ending, I’m still trying to piece everything together, and I find that incredibly satisfying. I don’t like mysteries with simple or obvious endings as much as I like ones that require you to think past the final page. I feel like it adds to the longevity of the novel itself but also applies more to real life, that sometimes knowing the truth doesn’t mean having all the answers in a clear-cut pattern.
The thing I didn’t expect to receive from The Night Tiger was a certain romance that played out. I won’t go into it too much because of spoilers, but I will go on record to say that, while some people may have problems with it, I personally do not because of the context of the story. Once I started reading it, it became very obvious what was happening and what was going to happen, so it wasn’t shocking to me when it did.
If anything, I felt bad for the two characters involved, about the mutual guilt they had for their feelings, how their circumstances weren’t their own choice and how their personal relationship lacked the societal taboo that was being placed upon them. (Yes, lacked. I know couples in real life who act more like that taboo than either character ever did.) So I’m rooting for them, hoping both of them will find their way, one that they’re both happy with. But I’m especially proud of one of them wanting to figure themselves out first and have the other be patient in the meantime; that shows real independence and growth of character.
Overall, The Night Tiger is a gorgeously-written, character-focused, and culturally-rich story. I can’t wait to own my own copy and for other people to read it—and of course, I can’t wait to see what other books Choo writes in the future. That reference to The Ghost Bride within this novel alone made me squeal with delight, so needless to say, wherever Choo goes, I will follow.