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Novel set in Malaysia (.. a beautifully crafted book..)
12th February 2019
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, novel set in 1930’s Malaya.
William Acton, a slightly-less-than-respectable British doctor, receives the surprise present of an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy, Ren. Ren has been sent by an old, recently deceased, friend of Acton’s who in a letter begs the younger doctor to take the boy in. But Ren has also been given a mission from his former master, Doctor MacFarlane – to find the man’s finger which was lost years ago in an accident and to bury it with his body. He has only forty-nine days to complete this task, or his old master’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever.
In the nearby town of Ipoh, Ji Lin dreams of training as a nurse but her abusive stepfather deems any training a waste of time for a girl who will in due course be married off. Instead she is apprenticed to a dressmaker and is forced to moonlight as a dancehall girl to earn some money to pay off her mother’s mah-jong gambling debts. One evening, one of her dance partners leaves a gruesome souvenir behind – a small glass specimen bottle containing a dried, severed finger.
As time runs out for Ren to complete his mission a series of unexplained deaths occur and rumours grow of the night tiger, a man who can turn into a tiger. Ren, certainly, becomes more and more convinced by the myth as he frantically tries to track down his old master’s lost digit and inevitably, Ren and Ji Lin’s paths cross as they attempt to unravel the mystery.
The Night Tiger is a weighty book and not one I embarked on with much optimism, not being a great fan of myth and magic, but Choo’s book just grabs you on the first page and holds you in its grasp to the very end, a bit like being seized by the night tiger itself. It’s a great read – a tantalizing mystery that keeps you guessing – with a sinister and unexpected ending. But it’s more than that – it’s a brilliant bit of historical fiction that explores the impact of colonialism on the lives of Malaysians and British alike. The writer vividly recreates for the reader the Malaysia of the 1930’s with its stuffy colonial types sitting down to formal dinners, where their respectable appearance and strict manners mask all kinds of corruption beneath. Behind the scenes the servants polish the silver and worry about the imminent threat from the jungle creatures lurking at the end of the formal garden.
The novel is also beautifully crafted – Choo’s prose is brilliantly lucid which also makes for easy reading and her characterisation is just delightful. The three main characters – Ren, Ji Lin and Shin are masterful creations – believable creatures of light and shadow who engage the reader from first meeting and leave you finally really wanting to know what’s next for them; despite the novel’s length, I wouldn’t have cut a page and would happily have kept on reading.
Ellen for the TripFiction Team
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