Book Review: THE NIGHT TIGER, a story imbued with legends unfolding in colonial Malaya

Choo, Yangsze - The Night Tiger (4)The Night Tiger
Yangsze Choo

On his deathbed, Dr. MacFarlane, who had only four fingers on one hand made his young houseboy, Ren, promise to find his missing finger and bury it with his body within forty-nine days of his death. Meanwhile, independent Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who is secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong gambling debts, steals a vial from a client–and inside is a finger preserved in salt.

Dr. MacFarlane sends Ren to Batu Gajah to work for William Acton, the surgeon who removed his finger to save him from infection. Meanwhile, Ji Lin learns that the client from whom she stole the finger suddenly died, and his funeral was being held in a town near Falin, where she grew up. Back in Falin, she was surprised to see her stepbrother, Shin, who had been studying medicine in Singapore. Although Ji Lin had always been the better student, her stepfather refused to further her education. Though Shin and Ji Lin were born the same day and were close as twins during childhood, they grew apart. Ji Lin had jealousy that he was living her dream of going to medical school, but also other, confusing feelings of attraction. Shin was home for the summer working as an orderly at the Batu Gajah District Hospital, where William Acton worked as a surgeon. Ultimately, with no one else to trust, she confided in Shin about the finger.

Though Ji Lin was desperate to rid herself of the finger, it kept appearing in her possession as a precocious and strange young Chinese boy circled her dreams. Meanwhile, young local women were being killed, ostensibly by a tiger–some feared a weretiger–though pathologist Dr. Rawlings thought that it was more likely they were murdered before tigers mauled their bodies. Ren’s deadline was fast approaching, and Ji Lin seemed to be his solution, but it seemed like they might never meet. And Ji Lin’s possession of the finger placed her in unexpected danger. At the same time, the deaths of the women might reveal terrible secrets William Acton has tried to hide.

I liked a lot about The Night Tiger, particularly the setting–colonial Malaya, its flora, fauna, and weather, and learning about the legends of the area–regarding weretigers and beliefs about Chinese numbers. Although Choo critiques the gender hierarchy, in my opinion she does miss an opportunity to criticize British rule, though the description of how the British lived might be censure enough.

Ji Lin offered an ostensibly layered character. Because of her intelligence and experience at the dance hall, she was savvy and blunt, but still proper. However, at critical junctures she made outlandish assumptions or was silent when she needed to be confrontational.

While Shin, her stepbrother / object of her affections was supportive, he was also prone to possessiveness and rage, a shade lighter than his father who was physically abusive to Ji Lin’s stepmother. Not only is it rather creepy to have her stepbrother as a love interest, it seems again that supposedly wise Ji Lin ignores obvious warning signs.

Ren, though quick to learn and conscientious, has a single-minded determination to fulfill MacFarlane’s mission, and even very sage advice and tragedy don’t slow him down or make him think twice about his journey, though at eleven, that might be understandable.

A lot of attention is given to the five Confucian virtues and how they are a set. In the book, certain characters represent the virtues and they, too, are supposed to represent a set, but why they are connected and what this means is never very clear. (Many of them don’t meet each other.)

Finally, although the novel did have some “mature themes,” many times it read like a young adult novel to me. If it were a movie, it would definitely have been produced under the Hays Code.

I think there are a lot of readers who would enjoy this book, and I certainly did find the depiction of the surroundings interesting, but the The Night Tiger didn’t live up to my (possibly too high) expectations.