The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books 978-1-250-17545-8, $26.99, 384pp, hc) February 2019.
Author Yangsze Choo takes readers on an immersive ride into the past with her entertaining mystery-fantasy adventure, The Night Tiger. Set in 1931 Malaya, the novel combines one young boy’s quest to fulfill the deathbed wish of a revered elder with a young woman’s attempt to return a souvenir dismembered finger to the lecherous creep she accidentally stole it from. The potential connection between the boy, Ren, and the struggling dressmaker/dancer, Ji Lin, is the narrative’s overriding question. It insinuates itself within what appears to be a classic murder mystery plot and then, as the action heats up, it refuses to let go. Through alternating chapters, Choo circles Ren and Ji Lin, bringing them closer and closer together as the true horror of the finger’s past comes clear. The hunt for a killer, the roar of a persistent tiger, a dead man’s worrisome past, and some very complicated family issues all combine to make The Night Tiger a thriller with fantastical overtones. The extra surprise is in the connection between the two protagonists, and how far it extends beyond Ren and Ji Lin.
First and foremost, Choo does an excellent job of capturing the sights and sounds of pre-war Malaya. Ren’s travels from the home of one benevolent employer to another (who is hopefully equally benevolent) and Ji Lin’s pressure-filled existence as a young woman forced to carry crushing family responsibilities are on vivid display as they move through several bustling communities. As the author shows, a young boy and a woman shared shockingly similar degrees of powerlessness in that place and time, and it is their individual insistence at pushing back against those limitations that will endear both characters to readers. But the mystery of the finger is relentless, and the stockpile of deaths that crop up in its wake keeps the pages turning. Then, as Ren and Ji Lin’s connection is revealed, the plot explodes and the subtle hints that Choo has been dropping all along come together. Ji Lin in particular proves her detecting skills and the simmering fantastic elements roar to the forefront.
The Night Tiger is a slow burn of a novel that hints early and often at regional myths and legends. There is much more at work here, including the tender sorrow of Ren’s childhood and the violence that has long threatened Ji Lin. There are so many societal rules the each must navigate and so many ways they can fail. Even without the burgeoning difficulties of returning the finger to where it belongs (and keeping it out of the hands of the wrong people), life is hard enough for these characters. Neither one of them garners any respect from the wealthy and powerful interests who impede their efforts and, as it becomes increasingly more dangerous to get to the truth, each is drawn to the world of their dreams and the seductive appeal of just giving up. This is especially true of Ren, and saving him becomes a task that Ji Lin cannot deny. In the end, the roaring tiger is the least of their worries, and the villain turns out to be someone more than up to the horrors that Choo has promised from the very beginning.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.
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