Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright
As book lovers and avid readers we all search for that gem of a novel that makes our bookish heart pitter-patter with excitement. Sometimes we hit the mark, other times we strike out. Praise the book gods for Yangsze Choo’s mesmerizing new book The Night Tiger because I want to shout from the rooftops about this book.
Set in 1930s Malaysia, under British colonialism, The Night Tiger follows two main character Ji Lin and Ren.
Ren is an 11 year old Chinese houseboy sets out to fulfill his master’s dying wish for the boy to find his missing (amputated) finger and return it so that his soul can rest in peace. Following the local traditions, Ren has 49 days to find the finger and return it to his master’s grave.
Ji Lin is an ambitious and smart young woman but due to sexism and a controlling and abusive stepfather she’s apprenticed to a dressmaker rather than continuing her education. Meanwhile, after her daily work in a dress shop, Ji Lin takes a job as a dance hall girl under the alias “Louise” where men pay to dance with lovely women. Although she hides the fact that she works at a dance hall, she needs the money to help payoff her mother’s mahjong gambling debt. It’s during one of her dance sets that Ji Lin comes into possession of a mysterious and grisly object.
Ji Lin and Ren’s stories converge around unexplained deaths that locals claim to be the work of a were-tiger, or men that can turn into tigers. Add to this premonitions, ghosts, and fate and you have a blend of magical realism and mystery that will keep you hooked.
There’s so much more to the story than a quick description can truly describe, but for fear or revealing too much I’ll stop here.
I absolutely loved how Choo immersed the novel fully in Malay folk belief and tradition, which is an amalgam of the various cultures that inhabit it. I had never heard of the were-tiger belief that either men could turn into tigers or that some tigers have the ability to wear a human skin. Simultaneously feared and revered the were-tiger provided a fascinating premise for a book. Moreover, Choo weaves in other beliefs such as superstitions surrounding numbers like “4” as well as the five Confucian virtues that create the perfect man. Such rich details throughout the novel really made this novel so special and, well, magical. Choo’s incorporation of these elements never felt forced and instead allowed me to get lost in the magical realism of the novel.
Moreover, I felt like the characters were richly developed. Ren was endearing and the child innocence of his plot line added some much heart and depth to the story. While Ji Lin’s struggles to create her autonomy in a world and culture where respectable female jobs were limited as well as a budding forbidden romance connected with me a female reader. Though I live in a different time and place from Ji Lin I felt like I could connect with her coming-of-age story and her decisions about what was right for herself.
Subtle themes of gender, class, and colonialism add historical depth to the book while also providing reflections of our own society. The plot was well-paced and I devoured the nearly 400 page book in a span of about 5 days and that’s only because real life things like work and chores got in the way of my reading time.
I highly recommend this book!