Do you need some magical realism for the holidays? Read The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reese's Book Club pick 4/19
Published 2019, 384 pages
I must say, I found this book unexpectedly good! It's a grab bag of elements: some magical realism (weretigers (instead of werewolves)), myths and folklore, customs and family dynamics, set in Malaysia of the 1930s.
The characters are interesting and well developed, the mystery keeps the story moving along and the evocative writing is excellent. The story has two main characters whose stories intertwine: Ren, an orphan houseboy as he's tasked with reuniting his master's finger with his buried body after he dies (within 49 days as is the cultural custom or else the soul will wander the earth, unsatisfied), and Ji Lin, a young woman who is struggling to get by on her meager apprentice dress making funds but is forced to take extra work as a dance-hall girl.
“One of the appalling yet convenient things about being family is that you can trade accusations at night, then pretend next morning that nothing has happened.”
The severed digit is a major point in the story as it changes possession and connects various characters. Tracking this finger consumes both Ren and Ji-Lin and eventually other characters as well (this is the slight mystery). Ji Lin's family relationships are difficult; she has a controlling, sometimes violent, step-father, a timid but loving mother, and a step-brother that becomes a friend and protector. Ren and Ji Lin both have disturbing, prophetic dreams that influence their beliefs and behaviors.
The Night Tiger is complex and thought provoking as it explores cultural beliefs. The strong writing holds all these disparate elements together and I was never confused about any of the characters or their part in the quest. Choo is able to create tension, evoke the conflicting emotions of a young woman and the manipulations of a mature man with equal skill, and describe the locale beautifully.
I really couldn't put it down and found myself thinking about the characters and story at odd moments at work and then reading obsessively at home to find out what was going to happen next. Not the strongest of endings, but satisfying.