The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Some stories tell of rich histories and folklore. Others enchant with forbidden romances and evil foes. Others are filled with emotional turmoil and death. And yet, some stories seem to encompass it all.
Set in 1930s Colonial Malaya (current Malaysia), Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger follows an eleven-year-old houseboy named Ren, tasked with fulfilling his dead master’s final wish to find his long-since detached finger. Ren only has 49 days to reunite the finger with its earthly body or his master’s soul will roam the Earth forever. Ji Lin, a young apprentice dressmaker moonlighting as a dancehall girl to pay her mother’s debts, accidentally receives one of her dance partner’s lucky charms: a mummified finger. As Ren and Ji Lin walk their destined paths unknowingly toward each other, a strange series of deaths, dreams of the in-between, and whispers of weretigers force them to fight their demons, both internal and external.
Choo selects two vulnerable characters to serve as the reader’s guides. Through the third-person narrative of Ren, the reader gets a keen sense of observation and understanding of Ren’s child-like perspective of the world around him: “Ah Long is so dismissive of the idea that Ren is somewhat comforted. In the bright sunshine, there’s nothing to worry about. Today, he’s saved a life. How much weight does that carry?” (44). Although initially Ren shows an idealistic and simple outlook, facing adult problems like death and relocation jades him. In parallel, we follow the first-person perspective of Ji Lin to gain unrestrictive access to her own view of the challenges of life, especially for a young woman: “The Ji in my name wasn’t commonly used for girls. It was the character for zhi, or knowledge…So it was a bit odd that a girl like me should be named for knowledge. If I’d been named something feminine and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily,” things might have turned out differently” (15). Ji Lin highlights her own self-awareness to the audience while foreshadowing the consequences of the actions she takes not just in attempt to return the severed finger, but also to go against the grain of the societal expectations placed on her as a young woman. Ren provides the reader innocence and passionate virtue while Ji Lin balances his child-like wonder with inquisition and truth. Choo effectively delivers a full circle focus of this world through Ren and Ji Lin.
The Night Tiger exemplifies Choo’s ability to use vivid imagery to fully illustrate the rich Malayan colonial culture, but also delicately address its stereotypes: “And now Ren realizes that the mood in the house has changed. There’s a rising buzz, cries of alarm and pleasurable excitement…This is what they have come East for: adventures like tigers in the garden, Oriental dancing girls, and cobras in their beds” (225). Through Ren, we are Malayan, peering at the misconceptions of Outsiders whose ignorance calls for a steep price in the eyes of the weretiger. This cost is only fully realized much later by each character, and in individual ways. Choo relates common themes like wholeness, duty, love, death, and family to her audience by blending diverse social perceptions against the backdrop of a culturally unique setting. As Ji Lin reminds us, some of these shared considerations ring true today: “We forget all the bad things in favor of what’s normal, what feels safe” (116).
Stories are crafted as lessons or as forms of entertainment. Sometimes, they are meant to scare us or entice us. And some tales give us a glimpse into a new perceptive we would have never seen otherwise. The Night Tiger gives us something to believe in, thrills our need for mystery, and reminds us to look beyond our own perceptions.