Dr. Macfarlane is missing a finger. At the beginning of Yangsze Choo’s second novel, “The Night Tiger,” that’s essentially all readers know. We’re not sure how the doctor lost it or where it is now, let alone why he so desperately wants his houseboy, Ren, to get it back for him. With hardly any explanation, Dr. Macfarlane begs Ren from his deathbed to find the finger and return it to his grave within 49 days of his death. Ren agrees to do his bidding, and soon finds there is much more to the mystery surrounding Dr. Macfarlane and his missing finger than there had first appeared.
The story, which is set in Malya (an older name for what is now modern-day Malaysia), alternates between Ren’s point of view and that of the novel’s other protagonist, Ji Lin. Ji Lin is a strong-minded and independent girl who has sacrificed her dream of continuing her education and becoming a nurse in order to help keep her family afloat. She has a day job as a seamstress and works at a dancing hall on the side to earn enough money to pay off her mother’s Mahjong gambling debts. Ji Lin is a refreshingly determined and strong-willed female protagonist who frequently outsmarts the men around her. Her clever and humorous demeanor makes it easy for readers to root for her and makes the novel more entertaining as a whole.
There’s also Ji Lin’s stepbrother, Shin, who she grew up with but hasn’t seen in months. Shin, who has a somewhat guarded and stoic personality from living in fear of becoming like his abusive father, is training in Singapore to become a doctor. All of Ji Lin’s friends find him utterly irresistible, but Ji Lin has definitely, most certainly never been interested in him (until now, maybe).
Despite Ji Lin’s worries of her stepfather discovering her mother’s debts and her job in the dance hall, everything appears to be normal. But then, the deaths begin. A salesman is discovered dead on the side of the road. Dogs disappear without any explanation, never to be seen again. A woman is found half-eaten on a plantation, by what locals suspect was a weretiger, a mythical creature that shapeshifts between human and tiger. And when Ji Lin pickpockets a vial with a single finger in it from a customer at the dance hall, it’s clear that she and Ren are destined to come together to unravel the mystery surrounding the deaths and weretigers side-by-side.
Choo (whose debut novel “The Ghost Bride” is being adapted into a TV show by Netflix) was born in Malaysia and has imparted much of her Malaysian and Chinese culture into the story, a visual highlight of the novel. From the food the characters eat to the clothes they wear and the places they live, readers are exposed to a part of the world and way of life they may not be familiar with. The idea of weretigers, which is at the heart of the novel, also stems from traditional tales and beliefs that originated in Malaysia and other parts of Asia, as Choo details in a “notes” section in the back of the novel. The motif of chinese homonyms (words that sound or are spelled alike but have different meanings) is also heavily present in “The Night Tiger,” as well as themes of colonialism and tensions between foreigners and locals in villages.
The resulting novel is a blend of culture, history and mythical tales. Choo has crafted an exciting and enjoyable story that bridges the genres of mystery and fantasy and has just the right amount of thriller to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Choo’s characters are well-developed and intriguing, and she unites them through a complex plot she has expertly weaved together. Even without such strong characterization and plot, the cultural road trip the novel provides is reason enough to read “The Night Tiger.”