Book Review: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Took me 7 days to finish this massive 471-page tome! The Night Tiger is a unique mystery novel set in 1930s Perak, Malaysia during the colonial era. The main plot involves 11 year old Chinese servant boy Ren’s secret mission to find and return a missing disembodied finger to his master’s grave within 49 days, or else his spirit will roam the earth for eternity. Intertwined with Ren’s story is the story of our protagonist, Ji Lin, a young woman who moonlights as a dancehall hostess to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts and her misadventures in love. Throughout the book, deaths occur under mysterious circumstances.

While Yangsze Choo expertly weaves in Chinese and Malay myths of weretigers and dream-eating tapirs, we see dual worlds in this book converge: the worlds of the living and the dead, the worlds of the masters and the servants, the worlds of boys and girls, the worlds of what is taboo and what is socially acceptable, and the worlds of dreams and reality.

One of my favourite lines is: “The European werewolf is a man who, when the moon is full, turns his skin inside out and becomes a beast. He then leaves the village and goes into the forest to kill. But for the natives here, the weretiger is not a man, but a beast who, when he chooses, puts on human skin and comes from the jungle into the village to prey on humans. It’s almost exactly the reverse situation, and in some ways more disturbing.”

The Night Tiger is very much historical fiction mixed with magical realism. I’m not the most patient reader so the book felt like a long, occasionally confusing and repetitive, meandering trek through a forest with no end in sight, observing every leaf and investigating every sound along the way.. I felt that the characters were better written than the plot which felt a little thin at times.

The story was a lot slower in pace than anticipated and at times, most of the book could have been better edited for conciseness. Having said that, Yangsze Choo is a hardworking storyteller with a vivid imagination and admirable ability to write.

Some books that remind me of The Night Tiger are: Life of Pi, Midnight’s Children and Crazy Rich Asians.

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