The Night Tiger

Written by Yangsze Choo
Review by Viviane Crystal

In the 1930s, Malaya is a British colony. British culture and technology are everywhere, but local customs, legends, and superstitions often prevail. This novel tells the story of two people and a weretiger, or tiger-man, which fills the native residents of Kamunting, Ipoh, Batu Gajah and the surrounding area with fear.

Ji Lin is an apprentice dressmaker who moonlights as a local dance hall performer. After lifting a vial holding a finger from the pants pocket of one of her guest dancers, Ji Lin obsesses about its origins. In another story, eleven-year-old Ren is a houseboy, the faithful servant of Dr. MacFarlane, who is on his deathbed. He begs Ren to find his lost finger and bury it before 49 days elapse after his death. By the end of that time, if this finger is not buried with the doctor, his soul will remain a wandering ghost, unable to rest in peace.

The two threads crisscross and coincide. During these precious 49 days, there are unexplained deaths and local claims about fragments of human and tiger-patterned skin. The mystery will partially be solved, but in an unexpected fashion. Ren also discovers a train that carries the dead to their final resting place, but why is his dead brother, Yi, still appearing on this train?

This coming-of-age mystery is beautifully written with lush descriptions, characters suffused with the surreal, and a multilayered plot. Choo explores class differences, sacred beliefs, family interconnections, the effects of domestic abuse, and regional diseases. Highly recommended historical fiction!