Ji Lin is a young woman who is working as an apprentice dressmaker by day and secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance-hall in the evenings to repay a family debt. Ren is eleven, but tells everyone that he is thirteen. He has lost his entire family, including his twin brother, and is working as a houseboy for an aging English doctor. As the doctor nears death, he makes a final request of Ren that he cannot refuse, even though he has no idea how he will fulfill his promise.
And then there is the severed finger, mummified and preserved in a glass vial. Ren needs to locate it and bury it in the doctor’s grave within 49 days of his death to allow him to pass into the afterlife in peace. Ji Lin receives the finger in error while dancing with a client at the dance-hall. She can’t tell anyone she has it without betraying her well-guarded secret, and she has no idea what to do with it or how she will dispose of it.
As the days following the doctor’s death pass, the paths of the young woman and the boy will crisscross, circle, shadow and, ultimately intersect, allowing each of them to find not only what they want, but also what they desperately need.
In The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo weaves a wonderful tale of life set in Malaysia nearly a century ago. Choo deftly references and draws connections between Chinese cultural beliefs and folklore and the mores and morals of 1930s Malaya (as it was called then). Through her characters, she explores the Chinese superstitions regarding the way a number sounds and its corresponding meaning in language, resulting in numbers that are lucky and unlucky; the cultural significance of groupings of five and its common reflection of the five Confucian Virtues (wisdom, integrity, benevolence, honesty, and knowledge); beliefs and visions of the afterlife and our responsibilities to the dead; and the story of the were-tiger, which, in Chinese culture, refers to a tiger that is able to put on the skin of a human and masquerade as one in human communities (as opposed to the Western legends regarding humans that are transformed into wolves or wolf-like humans).
Choo also illustrates the often indelicate dance done between the native residents of Malaya, and the British as they colonized the country, and the Indian immigrants who moved to the island following the British. Particularly interesting is how Choo illustrates her British characters falling under the spell of the more relaxed Malayan culture, the more comfortable clothing and more interesting food, but only in the privacy of their own homes. One character often wears a sarong while in his home, but states that he would never wear it if anyone other than his servants were present. When around each other, the British dress as if they were in England, in spite of the tropical weather, and gather regularly for meals of canned British food, which they all claim to miss terribly.
The result is a fascinating and compelling story, deftly told. A story that is interesting both culturally and historically, while also being an intensely personal exploration of two very different people struggling to find their way in a difficult world that has very stringent expectations of them with little or no room for failure. The characters are both recognizable and memorable, and the resolution - while a bit predictable - will keep readers guessing and turning the pages until the very last one.