Review: The Night Tiger
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (2019)
This book was solidly in the camp of "OK."
The narrative follows two main characters in British Malaya (now Malaysia) in the 1930's, whose stories eventually meet up. Ji Lin longs to become a doctor, but social and gender norms have her working as a dressmaker's apprentice, and moonlighting as a dancer to help pay off her mother's Mahjong debts. On one evening of dancing she is left in possession of something she never expected - a severed finger.
Ren, an 11-year old boy, works as a house boy to a dying British doctor who has tasked him with one final request - to find his severed finger and return it to his grave. He has 49 days to accomplish this, or his master's soul will be incomplete and unable to rest in peace.
You see where this is going... The two main characters circle each other's orbits for a while, meet, bond over a finger. In the meantime, there are a lot of other side characters, many of whom don't end up mattering all that much to the story, as well as love story that felt very YA... and also kind of icky.
What I didn't know going into it was that there is also a very heavy focus on Chinese-Malaya folklore, magical realism, and superstition. I didn't hate it - I just didn't expect it to feel like a fairy tale. Once I finally wrapped my head around the fact that this is what it is, I started to enjoy it more. There are were-tigers (basically a werewolf, but the person changes into a tiger), characters fated to meet because their names correspond to the five Confucian virtues, ghosts, and some sort of dream landscape where you can talk to the dead.
(Also? This is no fault of the book itself, but I really don't like reading someone's dreams in a novel. Not even sure why because when friends/family tell me their wacky dreams I enjoy it. But in a novel I just have to skim through.)
Anyway, I think I would have enjoyed this more if I'd known all of that going in, but at the end of the day magical realism has to be really interesting and unique for me to be into it, and this was, as I said, just OK. But I did really enjoy Choo's descriptions of the Malaya landscape, and the historical fiction portrayal of British and Malaya culture clashes in this British-occupied territory. All in all, I think if you enjoy magical realism and mythology, you'll really like The Night Tiger.
P.S. I wish the above photo was the book cover I had! Not sure where this one is from, but I just thought it was so beautiful, and to me it's also much more congruous with the text.
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