The Night Tiger first come on my radar when I read FictionFan’s review of it (read it here). Right away I knew it sounded like a book I’d enjoy. A bit of Chinese/South Asian history, a bit of magic realism. I’m happy to say the book did not disappoint.
Ren is a ten-year-old houseboy in 1930s Malaya. He works for a British doctor who, before he dies, charges Ren with finding his missing finger and reuniting it with his buried body in order that his soul might pass peacefully into the next world. Not at all a terrifying and stressful task for a child, right?
Ren is a terrific character though. Childlike in his innocence but smart and resourceful. Choo does a great job of telling us his perspective while keeping a somewhat distanced third person narration so that we can watch Ren with more adult eyes.
Ren’s story alternates with that of Ji Lin, which is told from her first person perspective. Ji Lin has recently taken a job at a dance hall, where she dances with strangers for money, in order to help pay off her mother’s gambling debts. Ji Lin is bright and smart but her future is limited because her stepfather refuses to invest in her further education. Instead she has to watch jealously as her beloved stepbrother studies medicine and she is sent away to apprentice with a dressmaker. Ji Lin’s dancing job is a secret from her whole family but it becomes even more complicated when she accidentally ends up with a souvenir from one of her dance partners. A severed and embalmed finger.
From here unfolds the two stories, obviously connected, of Ren and Ji Lin. There are dreams, there is the legend of the weretiger, there’s murder. It’s a mystery story with a lot of other elements thrown in and it all works together in a wholly delightful manner. Ji Lin is a sparkling narrator, independent and feisty, without feeling too anachronistic of her time and culture.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will definitely be looking forward to Choo’s future work.