Reviewed by Rob Spence
English-language fiction set in colonial Malaya tended in the past to focus on the lives of the Empire types who ruled the roost back then: Somerset Maugham is particularly guilty of this, and even Anthony Burgess’s masterly Malayan Trilogy, peopled as it is with characters drawn from all of the ethnic groups of the country, still has a failed member of the British ruling class as its major protagonist. In recent years, the emergence of Malaysian novelists such as Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng, both of whom deal in their writing with British colonial rule, has redressed the balance somewhat. Now, Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese origins, follows up her well-received debut, The Ghost Bride, with another novel steeped in the folklore and culture of the region.
The novel, set in the early thirties, alternates between two voices: a third-person narrator, who tells the story of the precocious Ren, an eleven-year-old houseboy; and a first-person narration in the voice of Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker who also moonlights as “Louise”, a dancehall girl. The two narratives proceed separately at first, but soon become intertwined thanks to the disturbing presence of a severed finger, preserved in salt, that Ji Lin inadvertently acquires, and Ren must retrieve. In the background, a dangerous tiger stalks the jungle around the Kinta valley in the northern state of Perak, where the action is set.
Mixing mysterious, paranormal elements with a more straightforward quest plot, the novel centres around Ren’s mission to return the missing finger to the grave of its owner, his former employer. Only thus will his soul be at peace, and Ren has just forty-nine days to find it and restore it. As we follow the sinuous path that the novel takes us down, the richness of the setting and the culture embedded within it become important elements in the narrative. Ji Lin and Ren are linked in ways that become gradually apparent, their fates connected by the mysterious finger, and the superstitions that are associated with it. Superstition, particularly Chinese number superstitions, whereby certain numbers are thought to be good or bad luck depending on the homophones of the number words, plays a major role in the plot. More traditional Malaysian folklore also figures, particularly the belief in the shape-shifting qualities of the weretiger, the supernatural version of the man-eating beast. Great play is also made of the importance of dreams, and their impact on the actions of the characters.
These materials animate a plot which, in other hands, might have become a period detective story, as a series of unexplained deaths seem to be associated with the quest for the finger. Indeed, Ji Lin is a Sherlock Holmes fan, and at times she has to use her investigatory skills to determine the best way forward. Meanwhile she has to deal with the slimy approaches of the men at the dancehall, her love for her stepbrother, and the growing realisation that she is being drawn into a dangerous vortex with death at its centre. Ren has to adjust to life with his new master William Acton, a British surgeon with a dark secret in his past. He and Lydia, the other major British character, are quite Maughamesque, though certainly not two-dimensional colonial stereotypes.
Yangsze Choo’s writing is luxuriant: she dwells on the sights and sounds of Ipoh, where Ji Lin lives, emphasising the sensory delights of food and the natural world, whilst also conveying something of the mystery of the surrounding countryside, the home, perhaps, of spirit animals. There is sometimes a tendency, an understandable one, to use a local term, particularly for food, and then follow it with a description. This certainly clarifies matters, but perhaps lifts the veil too much. One quibble for me was the occasional use of a modern American locution in the voices of the British characters: a driver is asked to “swing by” the hospital; visitors “stop by”; even Ji Lin’s stepbrother asks for the “restroom.” This is, though, a very minor flaw. Overall, the writing is assured, particularly in differentiating between the two narrative voices.
This novel sets the emergent modern country against the ancient beliefs of its inhabitants, adding the spice of the murder mystery and the colonial dimension to the mix, producing an intoxicating, immersive and engaging experience for the reader. The author is adept at showing pattern and replication in the character’s lives, using the Confucian Virtues in a subtle and complex manner, providing both structural cohesion and a satisfying unity to the plot. This is a most enjoyable novel, operating on multiple levels, and sending at least this reader back to the myths and legends of south east Asia.
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Yangsze Choo The Night Tiger (Quercus, 2019). 978-1787470453, 473pp, hardback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)