The Night Tiger
Yangsze Choo

NOTE: The book lists most of the Chinese characters’ family names before their personal names, and I have followed suit.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Welp, that romance was definitely a choice. I’ve only read two of Choo’s books (because she only has two) and am waiting for the third, so it’s a little bit early to tell, but I’m calling it now: I am not a fan of her romantic choices. The Ghost Bride featured a romance with a genial chauvinist – product of the times, I suppose, but one hopes for better from a supernatural being – and the accepted love interest in The Night Tiger is relentlessly jealous, possessive, and controlling in a manner that is unfortunately reminiscent of Edward Cullen. Third time’s the charm, maybe, but I’m not banking my hopes on that third book, though I will read it just the same. There is something inherently addicting about Choo’s work, even if her romances leave a lot to be desired.

The Night Tiger begins in 1931 Malaya (modern day Malaysia), almost forty years after the events of The Ghost Bride. Eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy Ren tends to his dying master, John MacFarlane, a foreign doctor with an amputated finger and an unfortunate habit of turning into a tiger at odd moments. With his dying breaths, MacFarlane tasks Ren with finding his lost finger and sneaking it into his grave. If his body is not made whole within forty-nine days of his death, his soul will wander the earth till the end of time. This isn’t quite as impossible as it sounds: Ren has a lead in the form of the letter written by MacFarlane, and he also has a catlike sixth sense from his otherworldly connection with his twin brother, Yi, who died at the age of seven and has since been waiting for Ren in the afterlife, though his loneliness and his brotherly affection have sometimes pushed him to directly influence events in the real world in the hopes of forcing Ren to join him prematurely. Charged with this vital duty and armed with MacFarlane’s letter, Ren leaves his home in Kamunting and moves to Batu Gajah to join the household of William Acton, the wishy-washy doctor who amputated MacFarlane’s finger to begin with.

As the days tick by and the clock counts down, Ren adjusts well under the supervision of Ah Long, Acton’s crotchety Chinese cook: he is diligent in his official duties, and even successfully treats a young woman named Nandani, who is brought to Acton’s house with a severe leg injury. Though Acton belongs to the class of colonial Europeans who need servants to care for them more or less the same way they might care for a beloved pet, Ren and Ah Long are the only permanent staff, which gives Ren the chance to search for MacFarlane’s finger without awkward questions. Acton himself is kindly in a detached sort of way, going so far as to muse about sending Ren to school, but he is also a prolific skirt-chaser who can’t seem to keep it in his pants. He fled England after accidentally murdering his fiancée, and in the time since then he has settled into relative obscurity in Batu Gajah. As a trusted figure in the local community, he has taken advantage of his position by pursuing affairs with every woman he sees, except for Lydia Thomson, the daughter of a rubber planter, who appears to be the only woman he doesn’t want. Unfortunately for him, Lydia is persistent, and she hounds him by means that grow steadily less subtle. Worse, a couple of people who had the potential to make his life difficult – including his current mistress – mysteriously die, and he begins to worry that he will be investigated for murder while also cautiously theorizing that he might have the ability to rearrange reality to suit himself.

Some twelve miles away in the city of Ipoh, twenty(ish)-year-old Lee Ji Lin fights to stay afloat in a world that doesn’t let women become doctors. By day she is a dressmaker’s apprentice; by night she works at the May Flower Dance Hall as a dance hostess, saving every penny she can get to help pay down her mother’s mahjong debts before her abusive stepfather finds out. Though she doesn’t get up to anything explicit with the May Flower patrons, she lives in terror that her family will find out about her second job, which is generally lumped into the same category as prostitution. She also has to fend off persistent advances from childhood acquaintance Robert Chiu, a rich boy who tends to be somewhat lacking in the brain department, while struggling with her growing attraction to her oddly possessive stepbrother, Shin. Just to make things extra difficult, her normally ineffectual mother takes strongly to Robert (because of course she does), and she tries to pressure Ji Lin into marrying him. Already under pressure from multiple sources, the foremost of which is her mother’s unsustainable debt, Ji Lin finds her unwieldy double life unraveling before her eyes when she ends up with a shriveled finger in a jar, accidentally palmed from a sketchy customer who got too handsy with her.

This secret theft draws Ji Lin to Ren and Yi, and vice versa, but she is also targeted by a number of unsavory men as she unintentionally becomes associated with an investigation into the disappearance of multiple disembodied fingers from Batu Gajah Hospital. She eventually connects with Ren at a party hosted by Acton, but their meeting is cut short when Acton shoots Ren, mistaking him for the man-eating tiger that is rumored to be haunting the area. With only two days left until MacFarlane’s soul is permanently severed from the afterlife, Ji Lin and Shin travel to Kamunting in Ren’s stead and bury the finger in MacFarlane’s grave, finally laying him to rest. After disposing of the finger – and after an unpleasant, violent end to the missing fingers case – they set out for Singapore to start a new life for themselves, away from the disapproval and scrutiny of their parents. Elsewhere, Yi finally moves on, giving up on his dream of pulling Ren into the afterlife with him. Following his miraculous recovery and discharge from the hospital, Ren returns to Acton’s house just in time for Lydia’s final visit.

Meanwhile, Acton learns that his life has recently been arranging itself so agreeably not because he has the power to shift the universe, but because Lydia has been murdering anyone who seemed like they could ruin his life. Her general MO has been to prescribe a “stomach medicine” that is actually a poison derived from oleander leaves, which so far has been quite effective. She did all this to protect Acton as much as to blackmail him into accepting her as his bride, but her diabolical plans backfire spectacularly when innocent Ren laces Acton’s tea with the stomach medicine that was intended to take out Ji Lin, leaving Lydia with nothing. After the funeral, Ren and Ah Long are offered new jobs by Dr. Rawlings, one of Acton’s colleagues, who tells Ren that he will send him to school – per the terms of Acton’s will – and help him become a physician. As an extra twist of fate, Rawlings is on the cusp of relocating to Singapore, where Ren will presumably be able to reconnect with Ji Lin.

I mostly enjoyed this book, but it was harder to get into the characters the second time around because the men all suck, except for Ah Long and Ren, who are dears. I love Ah Long’s relationship with Ren, who becomes like a son to him. I have a soft spot for gruff old men who are secretly cinnamon rolls, especially when they become so protective over their loved ones. And, though exaggeratedly naive characters can sometimes drive me bananas, I really love Ren. He is so sweet and so pure of intention, so genuinely innocent that I can’t help wanting to wrap him up in a blanket and tuck him under my arm. Even though he barely knows Nandani, he still offers her excellent medical care and comes to view her as his own patient, to the point that he gives her food when she gatecrashes Acton’s party and becomes very upset when she suddenly goes missing. The moment he understands that she is truly gone is heartbreaking. Everyone has to grow up sometime, but I would have spared him that if I could. I would never have wished for him to find out the way that he does.

Unfortunately, the other half of the book is narrated by Ji Lin, whose story is far less compelling. As I said, the romance was a choice, and I wish Choo had chosen differently. I’m not strongly opposed to the stepbrother-stepsister relationship; we love who we love, and they’re not biologically related, so it’s fine, if a bit weird. But I really take issue with Shin, who never hits Ji Lin but is still abusive in ways that echo his father. If there is one thing I have taken away from this book, it is that Shin needs therapy more than he needs to sleep with his stepsister. (Not a thing in the 1930s, I know. But that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong.) While I don’t hold his trauma against him, neither is that an excuse for his habit of punishing Ji Lin through his scowls and his silences, whether he means to punish her or not. He is never called out on this, though the narrative repeatedly mentions Ji Lin’s supposed attitude and independence while simultaneously reinforcing her fear of Shin’s anger. Even on good days, she is constantly monitoring Shin for signs of anger, especially when other men happen to be in the room with her, and she is always the one to offer peace when he’s in one of his moods. This is emotional abuse. You will never convince me that this relationship is healthy or normal. I’d like to think that Shin will grow up as they move out of the shadow of his father’s influence – they are so painfully young – but there is no reason to expect this, because Ji Lin’s constant capitulations give him no incentive to change. Given that Ji Lin is frequently mocked for not being more stereotypically feminine, this kind of submission is very disappointing.

Aside from Shin and Ji Lin, the main trouble is that The Night Tiger tries to do too much. It’s a murder mystery and a crime ring story and a coming of age and a ghost story and somehow numbers are important, though Ji Lin’s internal ramblings on the significance of various numbers don’t tie into the story as much as she wants them to. I genuinely have no idea why the five Confucian Virtues are so important in the context of the story: they’re a way of mapping Ji Lin and Shin to Ren and Yi and Lydia, but it’s not clear to me why their bad choices have such a deleterious effect upon the rest of the world. These five people are supposed to be an imperfect set, named for Confucius’s Virtues but not quite living up to their names, which supposedly engenders chaos for reasons that are never explained. They cannot possibly be the only people in the world named for Confucian Virtues. Why were they specifically chosen to fix the world? Is it merely proximity, and is their influence limited to the confines of their region? Ji Lin and the two little boys believe they are part of a fate-ordained set, but why? Why did we spend so much time worrying about Lydia and her influence on the delicate balance of the universe? Why are we not currently worried that nothing happens to her after the stone-cold irony of Acton’s death? More to the point, are the Virtues there because they’re actually adding something, or are they there because Choo couldn’t find another way to tie all her stories together?

In general I think I was too generous when I read this book the first time, most likely because I got swept up in the vibes and had absolutely no thoughts in my head. Choo’s work is characterized by a certain atmosphere to which I tend to be very susceptible, as I found out with The Ghost Bride, but it doesn’t quite hold water upon rereading. If it had cut out the Confucian Virtues and the crime ring and the icky romance, it would’ve been a solid murder mystery that happened to have a ghost tiger in it. Really it would’ve been fine if it had just fixed Shin’s ugly temper and ditched some of the miscommunication. I am dying for an era in literary history in which my fellow writers start to realize that miscommunication and emotional volatility are not sexy, particularly when the character doesn’t seem to have any hope of improvement. The future is a blur, and it is absolutely possible that I am completely wrong about Shin, at least as far as his eventual maturation goes. All the same, I hope Ji Lin doesn’t mind tying his shoelaces for him when he says he’s too mad to do it. Given the way things have been going with their relationship, I suspect she’s going to be doing that a lot.