A young houseboy and a dressmaker’s apprentice get drawn into a mystery in 1930s Malaya.
It is May 1931, and 11-year-old Ren’s master, Dr. MacFarlane, is dying. Before he takes his last breath, MacFarlane gives Ren a mission: Find the doctor’s missing finger, amputated years ago and now in the possession of a friend, and bury it in his grave before the 49 days of the soul have elapsed. In another town, Ji Lin has given up dreams of university study to sew dresses during the day and work a second job in a dance hall; one evening, she is approached by a salesman who presses something into her hand during a dance: a severed finger in a glass specimen tube. By the next day, the salesman is dead—and his won’t be the last mysterious death to plague the area. Ji Lin’s search for the finger’s owner and Ren’s search for the digit itself eventually draw the two together and in the process ensnare everyone from Ji Lin’s taciturn stepbrother to Ren’s new master and his other household servants. Choo (The Ghost Bride, 2013) continues her exploration of Malayan folklore here with questions that point to the borders where the magical and the real overlap: Is someone murdering citizens of the Kinta Valley, or is it a were-tiger, a beast who wears human skin? Can spirits communicate with the living? Should superstitions—lucky numbers, rituals—govern a life? Choo weaves her research in with a feather-light touch, and readers will be so caught up in the natural and supernatural intrigue that the serious themes here about colonialism and power dynamics, about gender and class, are absorbed with equal delicacy.
Choo has written a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world.