Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Night Tiger - Yangsze Choo

Summary: 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. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I really wanted to like this book a lot. The summary makes it totally seem like my kind of book—folktales and superstition overlay with the modern and modernizing world, cultural strife amidst a changing societal structure, a magical story background where nothing is as it seems…it’s totally my jam. However, in practice, it didn’t turn out to be quite what I had hoped.

First of all, the story itself was interesting sounding, but in practice, the way it was carried out didn’t make for as interesting story as I would have liked. There were essentially two stories going on that then ended up making one story in the end, but the writing wasn’t my favorite. In order to make a story work, the writing is key, of course, and I didn’t feel that the writing in this book was overly strong. I prefer it when writing is either so beautiful and lyrical that you can’t help but appreciate the beauty of it, or that it is so well done that you don’t think about it at all and instead are just immersed in the story. The writing in this book just seemed a little clunky. It’s not novice-writer clunky, it’s just awkward in some of the transitions and the writing too noticeable in places. Sometimes the sentences are short and choppy and not as complex as I would have liked. All of this bugged me and I wasn’t as willing to just let the story flow in my mind as I would have liked.

The story definitely had the capability of being deep and complex. There were lots of issues at play, and addressing these in a story format is a good way to go, I think. The two main story arcs dealt with the similar issue of class and station in Malay society in the 1930s. The main characters were all forced to confront this at some point—the female character wasn’t able to be a doctor because she was a woman and the little servant boy came from a lower class and so his station was limited as well. I think it’s always important to give context to different cultures and different times. It’s easy to romanticize the past and to fault or own future, and vice versa. However, stories like this allow us to “keep it real,” per se, while confronting the past (and also present) of many places around the world, including our own place where we are now. The questions presented then still need to be answered today, even though we have come a long, long way from there.

One of the things that drew me to this book is that my Granny was also born in Malaya during this time because her parents (who were British) owned a rubber and tea plantation in Malaya. It was so interesting to have some cultural context to those family stories, and it ultimately led me down a rabbit hole to finding out more about them and where they were located (they were in Ipoh, where part of this novel takes place). I even found their rubber and tea estate, which still exists, and has been restored and is now a museum. How cool is that? I DON'T MEAN TO PANIC YOU BUT THIS IS MY FAMILY'S HOUSE! Well, not anymore, of course, but it was my great grandparents' house and the house my Granny was born in. It was part of the family until it was overtaken by the Chinese. I’ve posted that picture below because this is my review and I can hijack it if I want to. Also, to see a living building that reflected the time period of the book (and indeed the plantation homes of the book, although this home is now restored) is really interesting, in my opinion.


(Pic is from db.ipohworld.org)

Overall, I’d say that this book had some very interesting and compelling things going for it—the story is old and yet timely, and the characters are relatable. However, the writing is not the best and therefore inhibited some of the actual storytelling, which is why I’m giving it three stars instead of four.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is pretty clean, although there is some violence.  

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