The Night Tiger
Multiple worlds collide head-on in The Night Tiger, an exploration of Malaysian mythology as seen through the lens of its pre-World War II workaday world.
In 1931 Malaya, accident-prone eleven-year-old orphaned houseboy Ren is watching the death of his mentor, Doctor John MacFarlane. On his deathbed, MacFarlane tasks Ren with reuniting him with the two fingers severed in an accident and long lost, because they hold the belief that a person has to be buried whole, otherwise their soul is doomed never to find rest. In his final bequest, MacFarlane has also sent Ren to work for Doctor William Acton in Batu Gajah, and there Ren becomes his assistant – all the while believing Acton is the man who severed MacFarlane’s fingers and that he still has them in his possession.
Elsewhere, a girl renamed Louise by her new employer has her hair bobbed as she prepares to join the workforce. Working at a dance hall, she soon she meets a rude customer who tells her he’s a salesman – and as a parting tip after their dance presses a specimen jar containing MacFarlane’s missing finger into her hand. Away from the dance hall, Louise’s name is Ji Lin, and her mother’s arranged marriage to a traveling tin merchant has ended with coldness and abuse for both his son and Ji Lin’s mother, leaving Ji Lin feeling useless and hungry for adventure. She is in fact lying to her family about her moonlighting – they think she’s only working her day job, an apprenticeship with a dressmaker. As she dances at night in order to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts, she dreams of becoming a doctor, but the profession is unheard of for women in their city. When the salesman she’d danced with turns up dead, Ji Lin becomes convinced that the fingers are bad luck – especially when a mysterious man begins to trail her to ask questions about the death of the ‘salesman’. Seeking peace, Ji Lin and her stepbrother Shin team up to figure out where the fingers come from.
Day by day, Ji Lin and Ren’s paths come closer and closer to merging. But they have a bigger problem to deal with when a woman in their town is found mauled to death, leading to a string of further murders that cause people to whisper that the act was committed by a shapeshifting weretiger. The truth behind the murders – and the paths that unite Ji Lin with Shin, Ren with Ji Lin, and William Acton with the both of them – slowly coalesce as the clock ticks down.
The Night Tiger is lyrically told, though it’s not without its flaws. The pace is gripping, and keeps the reader turning the pages as the story alternates between being brutally realistic about the sometimes-harrowing lives Ji Lin and Ren live while taking us into the metaphysical beliefs of our characters. It’s the place where medicine, faith and superstition collide, and as the murky waters become clearer the mystery becomes more intense.
Both Ren and Ji Lin are compelling characters. While I found Ji Lin’s journey more interesting and her struggle more involving, Ren is steadfast, loyal, and bright – I wanted to see him truly succeed, and the way he makes his own found family caused me to smile. Both have such a long road to hoe, and their success is something that delights the heart. The relationship between Ji Lin and her mother was heartbreaking and my favorite minor one in the book.
There are only two real flaws in the novel’s make-up. The first is that its tendency to be episodic – to weave in and out of flashbacks, fantasies and dreams – can be confusing. I wasn’t often lost, but sometimes I had to page back through the book, just to make sure my trail of breadcrumbs hadn’t sunk under the snow.
The second is the progression of the relationship between Ji Lin and Shin. This is a little spoilerish, but after pages of having the author tell me they had felt a certain way about another for years, the sudden switch to something else was a little eyebrow-raising. I was glad that Ji Lin ultimately gained independence and love, even if it didn’t quite make sense to me.
Still, The Night Tiger is a transporting experience. It will take you to amazing places and make you believe in the power of the unseeable.