A few years ago, I read Yangsze Choo‘s first novel, The Ghost Bride, and adored it. So when her second book, The Night Tiger, came out, I was excited to get my hands on it. It ended up being one of my first purchases from Book of the Month after I joined in January 2019, and while it’s taken me far too long to actually read it – literally what was I doing for all that time?? – I’m so glad I got to curl up with it the past few days. It was well worth the wait.
The Night Tiger focuses on two sets of characters in the state of Perak in Malaya (now called Malaysia). First we have a Chinese houseboy named Ren. After the foreign doctor he works for dies in May 1931, he’s on a mission to fulfill his last promise: to find the doctor’s missing finger and return it to his grave before 49 days have passed. Ren is sent to work for another foreign doctor, William Acton – a man who may be connected to the missing pinky. While Ren secretly searches for the late doctor’s finger, odd events surrounding William play at everyone’s nerves.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Ji Lin is secretly working as a dance instructor (a scandalous job back then) when one of her clients – a salesman – accidentally leaves behind a vile holding… a mummified finger. Yuck. Ji Lin ends up working with her step-brother Shin to return the finger to its rightful owner. But when the salesman winds up dead, it’s becoming harder to know where to return the finger.
Throughout all of this, murmurs of a weretiger abound as strange, possibly murderous deaths pile up. The Night Tiger is filled with elements of magic, or at least magical realism, and as the characters’ paths finally start to cross, the repercussions are irreversible.
Before I dive into the juicy details, let me just say: I loved this book! As much as I enjoyed Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Night Tiger is on a whole new level. Wow, what a book!
First, let’s talk about the general magical vibe of this story. Is it a true fantasy novel? Or is it more magical realism than fantasy? Without spoiling anything, I do I think that the reader has some room for interpretation.
On the one hand, the book is named for the weretigers that some characters fear. And indeed, people are dying, sometimes at the jaws of a tiger, if the autopsies are to be believed. But could that tiger really be a mythological being? Could it actually be a certain person Ren knows or once knew?
The Night Tiger also offers dreamy realms in which the living can talk with the dead. But these nightmares feel too real to just be dreams, and how can we explain away Ji Lin communicating with the dead twin of a person she’s never met? How is it that these dreams sometimes seem to have visible consequences in real life? What about Ren’s own, possibly supernatural, abilities that seem to be connected to his dead twin?
Speaking of twins, The Night Tiger does play with ideas of related duos and the connections they share. The houseboy Ren had a twin brother who, sadly, died at the age of 7. Ji Lin and her step-brother Shin happened to be born on the exact same day, albeit to different sets of parents. Our characters mix with other Chinese superstitions, including the set of five Confucian Virtues, and the idea of number superstitions – certain numbers being lucky or unlucky – plays a big role throughout the book.
This novel offers a wide cast of characters, but like Game of Thrones, it might be best not to get too attached to any of them: The Night Tiger ends up having a surprisingly high death count! Even so, the characters here are richly developed, and they form an intriguing web as our main protagonists unwittingly move closer together.
Ren is an excellent character, and possibly my favorite in the book. Although he’s young, he’s perceptive, intelligent, and unwaveringly good. He offers interesting and at times funny insights, and I always wanted the best for him. The cook he works with, though a bit rough around the edges, is another one that I really liked.
Ji Lin is a smart and tenacious character, and I appreciate how strong she is in the face of so much hardship. Her step-brother Shin is a bit more ambiguous, but I generally liked his on-page presence, too.
Perhaps most conflicting is William. The new doctor has some definite redeeming qualities, starting with how he treats Ren, but he’s no angel, either. Can he be trusted? What is he hiding in his past?
The Night Tiger shows the world through Ji Lin and Ren’s eyes, and while they’re presented as fairly reliable narrators, they don’t know everything. As such, it’s fun to see which characters they trust and don’t trust – sometimes to their detriment. While I suspected some people they didn’t, the author still managed to surprise me in a few cases.
The book also moves into some taboo territory. I wish I could talk about that more, but alas, it’d be a significant spoiler. What I can talk about, though, is the interesting insights into issues that sadly are still relevant today:
First, sexism is a major topic. Ji Lin, for example, is intelligent and ambitious, but her opportunities are limited simply because she’s a woman. She also deals with the double standards of how she and her step-brother can act in regards to dating and sex.
Second, we get a hard look at domestic abuse within Ji Lin and Shin’s family. The father is physically abusive and a source of fear in their household. In fact, that’s a large part of how Ji Lin gets into the whole mess involving the finger in the first place. It’s why both siblings moved out of home as soon as they could.
Related to that, The Night Tiger explores what gets passed on to the next generation. If a parent is abusive, does that mean their child will inevitably become abusive too? Whether through nature or nurture, it’s a fear that Shin has about himself.
Finally, colonialism is another significant theme here. The doctors in this story are all from the United Kingdom, and although their role is ostensibly a good one – to heal people – it’s also notable that these characters strike a certain amount of fear in others, whether as a sexual predator or as a mythological beast.
Ending on a lighter topic, there is a special easter egg for anyone who read Yangsze Choo’s first novel. In chapter 23, the cook Ah Long tells a story about his uncle, also a cook. That uncle was none other than Old Wong in The Ghost Bride! You don’t need to have read that book to enjoy this one, but that subtle nod put a smile on my face.
Yangsze Choo has truly outdone herself here: The Night Tiger is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s incredible, with a great balance of magic, adventure, drama, and mystery. It’s immersive and thought-provoking, but full of heart and care. If you’re interested in a historical-fantasy-meets-thriller-meets-romance, then here’s the perfect book for you.
Read The Night Tiger, then go tell your friends and family to read it, too.
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