Contemporary, Historical, Magical Realism

[Review] The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

TNTThe Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Publisher: Flatiron Books (Feb 12, 2019)
Review copy provided by Definitely Books
The Night Tiger is available in all good bookstores

When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.

Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.

As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.


When I first heard of Yangsze Choo, it was a few years ago when she published her debut novel, The Ghost Bride, which is set in Malacca back in the 1800s. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to pick it up, though the premise did intrigue me. However, I did get the chance to read and review The Night Tiger, her latest offering which is also set in Malaya (formerly Malaysia before her independence in 1957).

Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger promised an interesting and captivating premise which was such a thrill to read, even more so for me, as a Malaysian as a large chunk of the book is set in my hometown, the tin ore city of Malaya: Ipoh. Aside from the fact that it’s set in a place so close to my heart, The Night Tiger is a deliciously memorable blend of historical fiction and magical realism as the book explores the tale of night tigers/weretigers or “harimau jadian” which is a Malay folklore where humans have the supernatural ability to turn into tigers and terrorise village folk.

I found The Night Tiger to be an intriguing tale which kept me enraptured from the very beginning to the ending, especially the engaging mystery behind the ongoing plot which kept the flow of the book going pretty well. Though at times, I did find that the plot a bit scattered, but it found its way together nicely in the end. I found an appreciation for Yangsze Choo’s story to be one that I would enjoy deeply because it’s not every day that you get to read a book that fully encapsulates your culture and beliefs. It was such a satisfying experience for me to read about Malaysian Chinese beliefs that were wonderfully and deftly explored in The Night Tiger, especially the importance of symbolism for us Chinese.

As The Night Tiger is a plot-driven book, I wouldn’t want to reveal too much of it but one must wonder, how can the tale of a missing finger bring forth so many revelations and mystery? The book is told in dual narratives: Ji Lin, a young lady who has bigger ambitions than being a seamstress’s apprentice and Ren, a young orphaned servant who has vowed to carry out his deceased master’s dying wish. As the story is told from different perspectives, I must commend Yangsze Choo on creating an unforgettable tale where both characters’ tales were intricately weaved and bound together through a series of coincidences and unfortunate events.

Another highlight of The Night Tiger has to be how the social and cultural contexts of 20th century Malaya were accurately captured. For example, Ji Lin is a clever and quick-witted young lady who aspires to pursue a career in medicine but has been constantly told by her stepfather that her future is to marry well and bear children for her husband. However, being the tenacious fighter that she is, I liked how she was portrayed as woman who is out to prove herself as someone worthy to be treated as an equal, specifically in terms of having the opportunity to receive the education she deserves and the respect from her others.

Reading The Night Tiger made me feel a swell of pride as a Malaysian as Yangsze Choo’s writing shines in this atmospheric and beautifully written novel about folklore, cultural beliefs and identity. I would definitely recommend The Night Tiger to you if you’re looking for an enchanting story to lose yourself in, but one that will stay with you for a very long time.

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