Home Books The Night Tiger: by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger: by Yangsze Choo

“Unlike the European werewolf, which is often viewed in folklore as a blood-thirsty vermin to be exterminated,” Yangsze Choo writes in the author’s note to her second novel The Night Tiger, the weretiger of Malaysian and Chinese mythology “occupies a more nuanced position.” On the one hand, they can be seen as spirits or guardians of shrines and holy places. On the other, they can be shapeshifters who “embody the tension between man and his beast nature.” Choo points to stories from southern China of “attractive women who are tigers in disguise, and are only revealed when they start digging up graves to devour corpses, much to the horror of their husbands.” Needless to say, the weretiger has ample potential for exploration in fiction, which makes Choo’s novel an anticipated read.

The Night Tiger starts in 1930s Malaya, the British colony that would later become Malaysia, the night Dr. MacFarlane, an expat doctor, is dying. He calls upon his houseboy – 11-year-old Ren – to take up an important task: to find his missing finger. “You must get it back before the forty-nine days of my soul are over,” he says. A little bit later, we learn why this retrieval mission is so important: “The body must be made whole again when you die. Anything added must be removed, and anything missing replaced – otherwise your soul won’t rest in peace.” The doctor’s dying wish starts a quest that takes Ren from the small town of Kamunting to the Kintu Valley, where he comes into the service of another doctor, William Acton, a friend of MacFarlane. It is Acton who might know the whereabouts of the finger, though Ren would never ask the man directly. It’s a secret mission and Ren’s implanted into the Acton household as a sort of spy.

Running parallel to Ren’s story is that of Ji Lin, a young woman working at the May Flower Dance Hall in Ipoh as an “instructor,” though in reality she is paid to keep lonely men company by the minute on the dancefloor. It’s a job she keeps a secret “because no respectable girl should be dancing with strangers,” she says. She would rather be studying medicine but life in colonial Malaya has few options for women. It’s at the dance hall that she meets a playboy salesman from whom she accidentally steals a human finger sealed in a vial, a good luck charm.

It’s here, very early in the novel, that readers see how Ji Lin’s and Ren’s narrative threads will eventually meet in this predictable and disappointing novel. But for the time being, we’re left with the clumsy way Ji Lin comes into possession of MacFarlane’s finger. In the middle of a handsy moment, Ji Lin tries to push the zealous salesman away:

“I elbowed him, my other hand snagging in his pocket. Something small and light rolled into my palms as I snatched it away. It felt like a smooth cylinder. I hesitated, panting. I should put it back; if he saw that I’d taken something, he might accuse me of being a pickpocket.”

Alas, she holds on to it and the salesman never notices and off the story goes at a brisk clip, in chapters alternating between Ji Lin’s story (told in first person, past) and Ren’s (told in third person, present) with glimpses into William Acton’s, a kind of narrative carousel that leaves the reader a little confused and not wholly invested in any one character.

What readers soon learn of is MacFarlane’s obsession with weretigers that eventually led to an accident during a jungle trip, where his finger was amputated to avoid blood poisoning. After a series of suspicious tiger attacks that leaves dead bodies in the fields of rubber plantations – suspicious because body parts are left behind instead of being eaten – it becomes suggested but never confirmed that Dr. MacFarlane might be the weretiger haunting the jungles of the Kintu Valley, making the return of the finger to the grave all the more urgent. On top of all this, Choo adds underdeveloped subplots involving black market organ dealings and an uncomfortable, semi-incestuous romance between step-siblings Ji Lin and Shin, who gets in on the action with the missing finger because he works in the same hospital as Acton.

This is an overstuffed novel and Choo does well describing the details of colonial Malaya. She writes of the place evocatively and with a sense of history. When speaking of Falim, “a village on the outskirts of Ipoh,” Choo writes of “a few lanes of Chinese shophouses, their long narrow bodies sandwiched next to each other with shared walls.” And of Ipoh, Choo paints a portrait of a busy town amid great change:

“Despite the faltering stock market, our bustling town of Ipoh was giddy with the rush of new buildings built on the wealth of tin and rubber exports. It was raining, an unusually heavy downpour for midafternoon. The sky turned the color of iron, and the electric light had to be switched on…”

Choo likewise captures the social climate of that era with a deft touch. There’s the sexism of the time that leads Ji Lin to drop out of school despite a gift for numbers, and the casual racism Europeans living in Malaya had. In one scene, Ji Lin quietly realizes why her interactions with William Acton are so different: “he didn’t really see me as a person, just another interchangeable local girl.”

Choo has done her research and wants to show it off, but this often leads to the author hand-holding the reader along. In particular, Choo has a habit of using Chinese or Malay words, italicizing it and pausing the story to briefly explain what it means. Examples of this are numerous:

“At the old doctor’s house, they ate thick slices of Hainanese white bread, toasted over charcoal and spread with butter and kaya, a caramelized custard made from eggs, sugar, and coconut milk.”

“…I brought up a treat to make up for the fact that I wasn’t homesick at all. Today it was rambutans, the hairy, red-skinned fruit that snapped open to reveal a sweet white interior.”

“I set two portions of nasi lemak, coconut rice wrapped in a banana leaf with curried chicken and sambal chili, on the table.”

The effect is a narrative continually impeded by the author to explain a local dish.

Narrative interruptions can sustain neither the suspense nor horror that this book aims for – not that it’s aiming all that well. From the second chapter on, everything in this story is predictable as Choo reuses well-known tropes of the mystery genre without doing much to make it new. Does the character need to access top-secret medical files at the local hospital? No worries, Ji Lin can pretend to be an employee and quietly sneak in. Dream sequence revelations are aplenty. And then there’s a villain reveal (one of two) for the black market trading subplot that one nearly forgets about – complete with a devious monologue explaining the villain’s grand scheme (evil laugh not included).

Part of the problem with this novel is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a supernatural horror novel or does it want to be a mystery caper? Choo picks and chooses a little bit of both, never fully committing to either, making a novel that, despite its simple and straightforward language and its interesting subject, feels slow and long. Most disappointingly, The Night Tiger never commits to having a real weretiger either, leaving the reader to wonder in the last hastily paced chapters what the point of it all was in the first place.

Summary
This novel doesn’t know what it wants to be, and without commitment to a genre, it feels slow and long.
20 %
Predictable and disappointing

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