Historical Fiction · Magical Realism

The Night Tiger

Years ago, like back before I started publishing my reviews on a blog (in 2014), I read Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride. I left a short review on Goodreads when finishing (you can check it out here). It was generally positive and I feel like past me would not be surprised that current me picked up her second novel. However, for full disclosure, I did pick it up faster that I had planned to, since it was also this month’s book choice for my in-person book club.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

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The Night Tiger is told from dual perspectives. The first is Ji Lin, a young woman working in a dress shop and (secretly) in a dance hall. She has dreams of something bigger (perhaps nurse training), but is currently trying to help her mother pay off Mahjong debts. The other is Ren, a small boy whose master just died, but not before giving him one last task, to reunite a lost finger with his body, so that he can become whole in death. When Ji Lin comes across said finger accidentally, their two paths are destined to cross. And all the while, visits to the shadow realm, prowling tigers in the night, a string of mysterious deaths, and a completely unanticipated (and not entirely socially acceptable) romance cast shadows on our narrators’ lives.

This was quite the lush, lyrical novel. It’s a style very similar to Choo’s first novel, which is to be expected I suppose, with an overall eerie sort of tone. The mysticality of the writing creates an aura around the story that gives it a spectacular air of magical realism, despite the fact that, for the most part, the plot is explainable in realistic, non-magical ways (and a few more or less believable coincidences). It was the perfect style for this setting and storyline, but it also is one that lends itself to a slow-roll telling. So that, even though there was in fact lots of action (and death…so many deaths…in myriad fairly violent ways), it never felt like it. Relatedly, I felt that there were some moments (especially those of the dream sequences), when my mind sort of wandered away because things slowed down a little too much. It’s a style that isn’t for everyone, as readers, so bear that in mind as you go into this one.

I really enjoyed so many of the individual aspects of the book. Ji Lin’s relationship with her step-brother, Shin, was fun right from the very start. And I liked the way it progressed as well. Ren’s character was sweet and naïve in a very endearing way. As far as non-narrator characters, other than Shin, I felt like they were unique in their own ways (I had no issues keeping track of them or believing that their actions fell within their character/personality), but for the most part, none of them stood out in their own light. It’s sort of a weird assessment to make, but they all sort of existed on a very even-keeled playing field, as far as dominance in the story, and the way they all intertwined with each other (both in real life and in the shadow realm) was deftly developed. I thought it fit the writing and slower paced plot development very well, in this case. And the two “reveals” towards the end, of who is, in fact, responsible for the deaths throughout the novel, really did come as a surprise. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. The “matching set” of five Chinese names based on the five Confucian virtues that tied together all the main characters was a great big clue, but for some reason, the misdirection the author threw in worked on me. And I am glad of that, because it definitely made the end considerably more exciting! To that end, I was definitely not expecting the mystery aspect of this book when I started – that entire piece was an added bonus and I was glad for it. The rest of the novel could have happened without that, for sure, but the layer of intrigue it added was very beneficial to my overall final impressions.

In addition to the characters, and again in line with the parts of her first book I liked, the Chinese and Malaysian superstitions and traditions that were sprinkled throughout were absolutely fascinating. I loved hearing about all the different numbers and how they correspond to good/bad luck. I loved the way the entire novel was based on the idea of the five Confucian virtues and the importance of “complete sets.” I loved the beliefs about needing to be buried whole and the titular “night tiger,” or men who can take the skin of the beast and terrorize people. Basically, I learned so much historical culture and lore for this area of the world and it was one of my favorite parts. In line with this, the historical fiction aspects of the novel were also very illustrative. Seeing the combination of colonial powers and local independence play out, both within the context of the plot and as a general setting, was educational. This is not an area of the world that is discussed much, in school-based history classes (at least in my experience), and the reality of what colonialism looked like, how it mixed with (and overtook, but that’s my lens…the author was very neutral/non-judgmental, in the way she spoke about both traditional superstition and foreign colonialism) local culture was developed and portrayed, taught me a lot.

Overall, this is one I would definitely recommend if you are looking to lose yourself in gorgeous writing, learn about Malaysia and Malaysian superstitions/beliefs, and enjoy a subtly complex historical fiction mystery on the side. Plus, as I mentioned, the slow-burn romance was a great one here – I know not everyone was into it, but I bought it. Just be aware that the pace never approaches anything that would be considered fast. Although quite a bit happens, the beauty is more in the telling than anything else.

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