The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars
“[His] voice was icy. He’s an ass if he can’t tell you’re obviously a virgin.”
…and they say romance is dead.
On paper The Night Tiger has a lot of potential but there were several things that prevent it from being a really good novel.
Things that I liked
This is the sort of story that slowly intertwines the fates of seemingly disconnected people. Set in the 1930s in Malaya the narrative brims with the promise of magic and legends and folklore underline the story.
Yangsze Choo’s alluring prose complements beautifully the romantic and dreamy quality of her story. She often uses sweet-sounding metaphors that really appeal to the senses. Her descriptions have this rich and smooth sort of flair that make her setting really stand out.
A missing finger links the story of Ji Lin, a young dressmaker apprentice + dancehall girl, and Ren, a houseboy whose master has recently died. Ji Lin finds herself in the possession of a detached finger while Ren was tasked with finding his master’s missing finger and burying it with his now buried body. The promising premise leads way to a slow paced narrative. The mystery behind the fingers and the ‘odd’ deaths were to me the main drive of the story.
Things that I didn’t like
✗ Dual narrative
While I was intrigued I soon found myself disliked the ‘format’ of the dual narrative. The chapters ended almost with abruptness, as to pique the reader’s interest. I wouldn’t have minded but for the switching between 1st and 3rd person. It didn’t really add anything to the narrative, rather it made a lot of chapters clash with one another. One moment I was deep in Ji Lin’s story next thing I was an ‘outsider’ observing Ren, or worse still William.
Because these chapters interrupted each other’s ‘action’ there were a lot of observations and ‘realisations’ that are repeated, and often it seemed that I was getting a ‘recap’ of what had happened previously to that character.
✗ Characters (Ji Lin is not like other girls, and all men are pigs )
I really wanted to like both Ji Lin and Ren. Sadly, I soon found Ji Lin to be insufferable and Ren was both boring and had some very non-child-like moments
Ji Lin is the typical gorgeous and smart girl who doesn’t know how beautiful and charming she is. She wanted to study medicine, like her step-brother Shin, but decides not to disobey her “tyrannical” stepfather. Ji Lin seems to find it unfair that Shin was able to study and that she is only excepted to become a wife…and yet Ji Lin soon reveals herself to be the type of young woman who judges and condemns women in situations similar to her own. She seems to think herself better than the other dancehall girls (and their shock horror promiscuous ways). If she is progressive enough to think that women should be doing the same things as the men do, why does she so quickly condemn those like her? Does she think she is the only one who works as a dancehall girl because she in desperate need of money? Is it not likely that the other girls are going through similar ‘hard times’?
Worse still is that the narrative and the other characters constantly remind us that Ji Lin is not like other girls:
—“Most girls in my position would probably be over the moon”
—“You don’t scream about things like this,”
—“You really are blunt, he said. Don’t you know how to act like a girl?”
—“You don’t talk like most local girls”
So, other girls are flirty, air-headed, and easily scared of spiders. Ji Lin is DIFFERENT, she is SPECIAL, she is NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS.
Thanks to her new haircut everybody mistakes for Louise Brooks.
“Seen up close, she’s shockingly pretty. Or at least, she is to him, thought some might say her cropped hair and slender frame are too boyish.”
How can I believe that her beauty is ‘particular’ and ‘not to everyone’s taste’ when every single male character tries it on with her? There is only one guy (who makes only a brief appearance and is already married) who doesn’t pine after her. I kid you not.
Her whole character seems reduced to how men behave around her. She spent her time bickering with Shin, and failing to avoid/turn-down perverts. Her motivations and her actions seemed completely random.
Her character is clouded by her infuriating relationship with (view spoiler)
There are plenty of other vulgar men except that they are not as beautiful as Ji Lin’s love interest is…so they are just creeps.
William is this foreign (I think British) doctor who is made to seem like this possibly ‘bad’ man. Yet, his actions are far from monstrous. More than being loathsome, he seems pathetic. It would have been better to cut his POV entirely from the narrative since it just shows us how insubstantial he is. Really, what was the point of him?
All the men are either sexist or violent. They either act like animals, (“They were like two dogs sizing each other up”), look like animals (Koh Beng, who has a ‘porky face’ and is compared to a pig looks up Ji Lin’s skirt), or are compared to beasts(“Men are beasts, aren’t they?”). Their behaviours and actions are dictated by their reproductive organs. They have no brains! They are just there to behave inappropriately towards Ji Lin or mistreat other ‘lesser’ women.
Lastly, Ren did not act like a child. He is too self-aware to pass for a child. Yet, he also has these naive moments that came across as forced. We never get to know him well because his chapters often focus on William, his new master. Ren’s ‘cat sense’ was cringeworthy: his ‘tendrils’ travel here and there and can sense thing…how about n-o.
What could have been a great story focuses on a ‘will they/won’t they’ romance. The mystery of the fingers soon lost its appeal to me. The ‘murder’ storyline managed to be both disappointing and predictable.
I might try other books by Choo but this just didn’t work for me.
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