Somewhere between a detective story and a ghost story stalks Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger.
“All stories are ghost stories. It’s all about what is haunting us, what lives on in your dreams, and also what [lives on in] your nightmares,” says Choo, author of the 2013 New York Times bestselling debut The Ghost Bride, which ispartially staged in a traditional Chinese version of hell. “So I do think The Night Tiger is a ghost story. It is also a detective novel—and I often conflate the two of them—ghost story, detective novel, very similar structure. They’re both stories of discovery and suspense.”
Murder, magic, and digits abound in Choo’s enticingly enigmatic sophomore novel, set in 1930s Malaya.
“I wanted you to be able to read this book as a straightforward murder mystery in which everything—well, hopefully most things—was explained,” Choo says.
“At the same time,” she says, “the book can be read in a kind of otherworldly way”—not unlike The Ghost Bride. “There’s a lot of ambiguity I’d like the reader to decide. You get to choose your own adventure.”
In The Night Tiger, adventure chooses 11-year-old Ren, the houseboy of Dr. MacFarlane, an aged, ailing British surgeon living in Kamunting. The old man extracts a ghastly promise as his dying wish: Ren must find his master’s severed finger and bury it with his body, within 49 days of his death, or the man’s soul will be forced to wander the earth forever.
“Treacherous tears fill his eyes,” Choo writes. “But Ren has a task to complete; this is no time to cry. With Dr. MacFarlane’s death, the forty-nine days of the soul have begun to tick away…” Ren has boarded a train towards an uncertain future; rattling down the tracks, he perceives a wisp of the past—the ghost of his twin brother, Yi. “A flicker of that strange twin sense that bound them, warning him of events to come. But when he looks over his shoulder, there is no one.”
Fifty miles away in Ipoh, a tenacious young woman named Ji Lin works as a dance-hall girl to help pay her mother’s debts. A salesman she’s entertaining tells her this: “The body must be made whole again when you die. Anything added must be removed, and anything missing replaced—otherwise your soul won’t rest in peace.” He unknowingly leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, his lucky charm: “the top two joints of a dried, severed finger.”
As Ren and Ji Lin’s seemingly unlike stories entwine, The Night Tiger beguilingly becomes “a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world,” our reviewer writes in a starred review.
“If one has a favorite writer, many times you feel they’re writing the same novel or they’re exploring the same themes,” says Choo, who counts herself a big fan of Haruki Murakami. “His books are continuous dreams, they’re different aspects of the same [theme].
“[For me], death is really the final frontier,” she says. “It is a universal journey and yet it must be faced absolutely alone. Naked you come into this world, naked you shall leave. But there is just so much of humanity’s desire and longing to know what lies beyond the veil. I find that absolutely fascinating.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and cohost of the Fully Booked podcast.