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.
I really loved this book, though there were definitely some things that it left me pondering on after finishing it. I think The Night Tiger is pretty ambitious in that it’s not a simple story with simple themes. There are so many different things explored in this book, all of them pretty complex issues, and yet they are blended well together to create a cohesive tale.
The characters and their relationships to one another are really important to the overall story. Ji Lin’s relationships with each member of her family is complicated. She loves her mother but I think there is some resentment there as well–her taking on her mother’s debt and trying to pay it off is why she’s taken the job at dance hall which is the catalyst for pretty much everything else in the rest of the book. But, Ji Lin is a good person, and a good daughter, and she’s trying to protect her mother from her step-father’s wrath. She sees her step-father as a hard man who is abusive and cold and can’t understand why her mother always protects him. She used to be very close to her step-brother, like best friends, each other’s confidants, but then he became cold to her as well when he went away to medical school, never writing back or trying to keep in touch when she reached out. All of these family dynamics come into play in a major way throughout the novel. I have to say, I really loved Ji Lin, even when she was making decisions that had me shaking my head. In the end, she’s a good person trying to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, you have Ren, a servant boy with no family who has been taken in by a white doctor after his old master died. Ren had a twin brother who had died several years before, who he still holds on to. The spirit of Ren’s brother is very much around, still filled with worry and connected to his brother. Ren’s story is all about fitting into this new household while on a mission from his old master to find his severed finger (jarred and passed around as a good luck charm) and reunite it with the rest of his body so his spirit can be whole again and move on. I have to say Ren is the other character who I really loved here. Honestly, as far as characters go, they’re all pretty complex (with a couple exceptions) which makes it hard for you to get fully behind any of them when their flaws are so fully exposed in the end.
When the finger somehow ends up with Ji Lin, through a customer at the dance hall, that’s where our story really begins. You have these two interwoven story lines which are intersecting and overlapping as the novel progresses. And the two story lines themselves, are sprawling with many characters and side plots–really there are quite a few moving parts to this tale. There are mysterious deaths, and a tiger on the loose, and this finger that everyone seems to be searching for. Ji Lin gets mixed up in things because of ending up with the finger but then she stays mixed up in things because of her instinct that something is very wrong and her curiosity. And through her dreams in which Ren’s brother comes to her, trying to get her to help. Again, I both loved and hated how stubborn Ji Lin could be. Sometimes it worked out great and sometimes it really didn’t. Such is life!
The pace of the book was good with plenty of things going on and also some quieter, more introspective moments. There are the dream sequences and the flashbacks as well, which helped to keep the story unfolding. The characters in this, many of them, have hidden pasts. Some of these are only barely hinted at in the beginning but become more and more revealed as the story progresses. This is a story of uncovering the truth, whatever that may be, and also a lesson that the truth might not always be very satisfying when you finally have it. I think one of the reasons the relationships are so complex in this is because it mirrors the setting and the complexity of colonial Malaysia, of how all these people and cultures are intertwined and the effects they’ve had on each other.
There was one thing in particular that left me unsatisfied even when it should have made me happy which left me feeling conflicted in the end, but I kind of think that was purposeful and part of one of the overall themes so I’m also kind of satisfied at being unsatisfied in regards to that? If that makes sense. I’m being vague for spoiler reasons. Regardless.
Overall, I really did love this book and it left me a lot to think about. 4/5 stars.