Review: The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo
Flatiron, 2019. 384 pp. $18
In May 1931, Ren, a young Malay orphan who keeps house for a doctor, receives a request that you know will haunt him and put him in harm’s way. With almost his last breath, the doctor, who’s missing a finger, orders Ren to find that digit and bury it in his grave. The command startles Ren, but not for the reasons you might think. Malay folklore holds that if a dead body isn’t buried whole, the soul will wander forever, so in that sense, the request is perfectly reasonable.
But Dr. MacFarland, as his name suggests, is Scots, and though the dying man has long studied local culture — unusually, for a European — Ren never expected such an assignment. It’s a heavy charge for a ten-year-old, even one who pretends to be thirteen, even though the doctor has shown him great kindness. And he’s got forty-nine days to complete his task, or the doctor’s soul will never rest.
Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a young Chinese woman, has taken a second job to support her mother’s gambling debts at mah-jongg. By regular trade, Ji Lin’s a seamstress’s apprentice, a profession she has little desire for, but the only career her punitive, autocratic stepfather will allow. On the sly, she works for a dance hall as an “instructor,” paid to accompany men who, of course, take whatever liberties they can. If anyone finds out, she’ll be ostracized, not to mention the violent wrath she’ll face at home. But just when she’s hoping to leave the dance hall forever, a greasy businessman she particularly dislikes gets too frisky. In the scuffle, her hand winds up in his pocket and pulls out a glass vial containing a human finger. Despite her instincts, she keeps it without telling him.
From this complex, dizzying, but deftly rendered setup ensues a mystery that’s dark, enthralling, and singular. You know that Ren and Ji Lin will meet sooner or later, but I advise you to make no other assumptions. Many suspicious deaths and strange occurrences happen within each character’s extended circle of acquaintances, though the two circles may or may not connect in expected ways.
The one thing you do find out, because The Night Tiger derives much of its considerable fascination from local culture, is that these two protagonists’ names belong to the Five Confucian Virtues, as do those of — you guessed it — three other characters. The most important of those is Yi, Ren’s twin, who died several years before, and of whom he has frequent, violent dreams. But Yi also provides Ren a sixth sense about how to pursue his quest for the doctor’s missing finger and of danger in general. Further, though it’s not always clear how, some or all of the five have strayed from the virtues they represent, which causes further danger. Accordingly, the narrative becomes a moral tale as well as a mystery, and that uncovering the villains is only half the struggle, the rest having to do with good and evil.
Complicated as this is, I still wish that the author had held that moral theme more firmly to the end. But there’s plenty in this book, starting with the legends of the tiger, hence the title. Like many Malayans, Ren fears and admires that beast, often accused of nighttime rampages among human habitation. Even a tiger rug gives the boy pause:
Despite the indignity of being draped across the floor, its fur worn away in patches, the glaring glass eyes warn him away. Tiger eyes are prized for the hard parts in the center, set in gold as rings and thought to be precious charms, as are the teeth, whiskers, and claws. A dried and powdered liver is worth twice its weight in gold as medicine.
There’s more yet. Aside from beliefs in weretigers (analogous to werewolves) and their alleged crimes, we have cultural obsession with lucky or unlucky omens, forbidden love, and feminism — Ji Lin has always wanted to enter medicine, but that’s reserved for Shin, her stepbrother (whose name reflects another of the Five Virtues). The provincial landscape comes alive, but that’s not all, for you can practically taste the place. Throughout, the food the characters cook, serve, or consume will lose you your mind — rendang, sambal, noodle soups, desserts of coconut and tapioca. I’m looking through my recipe collection.
Normally, I shy away from supernatural influences in fiction, but The Night Tiger wins me over. Not only does the cultural background feel entirely lived-in and essential, the story never relies on the supernatural out of convenience, because little is convenient here. I like less how the mysteries resolve, which seems obvious and predictable, in part. That’s the only aspect that feels less than entirely satisfying, and a bit contrived.
Overall, however, The Night Tiger is immensely satisfying, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.