The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo - book review: Forbidden love, gender, class, sibling rivalry
Cultures clash, lives collide, and myth blends with mystery in a sumptuous, multi-faceted novel set against the lush backdrop of colonial Malaya.
Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Chinese-Malaysian and author of The Ghost Bride – her stunningly original debut – delivers another dazzling tale steeped in folklore, romance and intrigue as two young people are drawn into a dark and deadly enigma.
The Night Tiger – described by the author herself as a ‘sort of Downton Abbey of the tropics’– is a gloriously eccentric and daring adventure which explores a vanished way of life and the pivotal relationship between servants and their masters.
Expect Chinese dance hall girls, an unusual pair of twins, men who turn into tigers, and a train that takes you to the world of the dead as this fascinating story explodes into a rainbow of colourful superstitions, mythical creatures, and romantic drama.
Local girl Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker, also has very personal reasons for secretly moonlighting at the May Flower Dance Hall in Ipoh. What little money she earns helps pay off her mother’s mahjong debts to stop her cruel stepfather discovering the truth.
One of her comforts is her stepbrother Shin, born on the same day as Ji Lin and training to be a doctor, a career that quick-witted and ambitious Ji Lin had longed to take up but which was denied to her because of her gender.
One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner, a travelling salesman, leaves behind a gruesome souvenir… a shrivelled, severed finger preserved inside a slim, glass specimen bottle which fell from his pocket.
Fascinated but horrified, she keeps the finger and when she does think of getting rid of it, she is haunted by its presence as if it holds some kind of ‘dark magic’ and feels impelled to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile, eleven-year-old houseboy Ren is also on a mission… he is racing to fulfil the dying wish of his former master, Dr John MacFarlane. The finger he lost years ago in an accident must be reunited with his body within 49 days of his death or his soul will be doomed to wander the Earth forever.
As the days tick by relentlessly on Ren’s mission, a series of unexplained deaths shock the district, along with whispers about men who turn into tigers. Ji Lin and Ren’s increasingly dangerous and crooked paths criss-cross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms, and ghostly dreamscapes on a journey they will never forget.
Choo is a thrilling writer, evoking high emotion, gripping suspense, and an exquisite sense of time and place with her lyrical, sensual writing and her powerful evocation of the soaring, sizzling landscape.
From the miasmic mysticism of Malaya’s ‘looking-glass world governed by unsettling rules,’ and the harsh realities of abuse, privilege and powerlessness, Choo brings us a past world in all its kaleidoscopic complexity.
And at the heart of story is an intriguing, superbly plotted mystery, tingling with supernatural energy and dream-like intensity as contemporary issues and ancient mythology blend seamlessly together.
Forbidden love, gender, class, sibling rivalry, the dynamics of power and colonialism all play their part in The Night Tiger… a rich and compelling story, and a unique reading experience for all fans of history, magical realism, romance, and family drama.
(Quercus, hardback, £16.99)