Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"The Night Tiger" by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger, published 2019.
Yangsze Choo's novel The Night Tiger is a highly enjoyable novel. The author combines historic fiction with magical realism and folklore in a very exotic setting -- a little-known province of Malaya; that is, present-day Malaysia. In the novel, multiple cultures interact: Chinese people from different areas of China, English colonials, and local natives. The excellence of the book comes from the vivid characters, profound dream sequences, complex relationships, a colonial setting rather long ago in 1931, and a fascinating plot.

Ji Lin is one of the five central characters in the novel. At the beginning we learn about her name:
"The Ji in my name wasn’t commonly used for girls. It was the character for zhi, or knowledge, one of the five Confucian Virtues. The others were benevolence, righteousness, order, and integrity. Chinese are particularly fond of matched sets and the Five Virtues were the sum of qualities that made up a perfect man. So it was a bit odd that a girl like me should be named for knowledge." (p. 15).
The other four central characters, it turns out, possess names that incorporate the other four Confucian Virtues. In the course of the novel, the reader is made to understand how these names determine the characters' fates. Doesn't this sound contrived? That's the absolutely amazing thing in the book: it's not contrived at all! However, it's very suspenseful so I will not give away any spoilers.

The chapters of the book alternate between a first-person account by Ji Lin and an omniscient narrator telling about the other characters, especially the life story of a very young kitchen boy named Ren and his two masters, both English doctors. Each household has a number of personalities including servants, and in addition there are many other characters who are connected to the hospital where one of the doctors works.

Ji Lin leads a kind of a dual life at home with her mother, step-father, and step-brother; at her work as an apprentice dressmaker; and at her better-paying secret job as a dance hall girl. Her occasional descriptions of making and wearing stylish clothing contributes to the exotic atmosphere of the story; for example, she wrote about going to a funeral: "The only suitable dress I had was a plain grey Mandarin-collared cheongsam that I’d made as part of my apprenticeship. A cheongsam is an unforgiving, formal Chinese dress to tailor." (p. 46).

In both narratives, I was delighted to read many descriptions of the local fruit and vegetables, the local cuisine, the more exotic Chinese cooking done in the kitchens of the story, and the odd combination of English and local foods eaten by the colonial doctors and their friends who are a main part of the story. For me, the food descriptions are a delightful reflection of the multiple cultures that intersect in the complex and wonderful plot. Besides food, the story is full of the supernatural. Especially there's much folklore about tigers and about people who are really tigers or tigers who are really people.

I want to share some of the food quotes from Ji Lin's narrative:
"I brought a treat to make up for the fact that I wasn’t homesick at all. Today it was rambutans, the hairy, red-skinned fruit that snapped open to reveal a sweet white interior. They’d been selling them by the bus stop, and I’d bought a bundle wrapped in old newspaper. As I sat on the bus I rather regretted it, as the rambutans were crawling with ants." (p. 27).
"Going to the wet market had always been one of my favorite errands. You could buy almost anything there: piles of red and green chilies, live chicks and quail, green lotus seed pods that resembled shower sprinklers. There were fresh sides of pork, salted duck eggs, and baskets of glossy river fish. You could eat breakfast, too, at little stalls serving steaming bowls of noodles and crispy fritters." (p. 46). 
"Dinner that night was a silent affair, despite the luxury of a whole steamed chicken rubbed with sesame oil. It sat, expertly chopped into bite-sized pieces, on a large platter. None of us had touched it." (p. 33).
"At the canteen, I wanted to try the exotic Western food— sardine sandwiches, chicken chops, and mulligatawny soup— listed on the blackboard." (p. 114). 
"Koh Beng sat down and started eating. Noodles again, with thin succulent slices of pork liver ladled on top of the steaming hot soup. I wished I’d ordered that as well. “Want some?” he asked." (pp. 153-154). 
"I sat on her bed. “Are you working tonight?” I’d hoped that she was free to have dinner at one of the roadside stalls that grilled stingray wrapped in banana leaves, but she was clearly getting ready for an evening out." (p. 172).
"... both locals and expatriates came to drink at the long bar and order Western dishes prepared by a Hainanese chef: sizzling steaks and chicken chops, washed down with icy beer." (p. 175).
"They’d brought an enormous bag of mangosteens and a tiffin carrier of steamed pork buns, as though we might starve before reaching Singapore. It would be a long journey south: four hours to Kuala Lumpur, then an overnight sleeper of eight hours to Singapore. A total of about 345 miles— farther than I’d ever been in my life." (p. 363). 

And I want to share some quotes from the omniscient narrator: 
"Since William is at the hospital, Ah Long has put together some simple noodles in broth. Shredded chicken and boiled greens are piled on top, with a gloss of fried shallot oil. Ren notices that Ah Long has given him a larger portion than usual, with extra meat." (pp. 43-44). 
"... the monthly party, a much anticipated social event where people dine on canned food sent from Europe— peas, lobster, tongue— drink too much, and congratulate each other on having a wonderful time out in the Colonies. It’s his turn to host, and he must remind Ah Long to lay in extra wine and spirits and discuss the menu. William would rather eat fresh local food than something that has died and been sealed in a can, like a metal coffin. He shudders at the thought and quickens his pace to catch up with Rawlings.  
"The hospital cafeteria is an open, airy space with a thatched roof and a poured concrete floor. The daily menu includes both Western and local food. Rawlings stands in line at the counter and demands a kopi-o, strong black coffee with sugar, and a slice of papaya in his deep bass. Queuing behind him, William asks for the same." (p. 90). 
"'TUAN, are you going to church?' asks Ren. While William ate breakfast, he polished his master’s shoes with brown Kiwi shoe polish, purchased yesterday in town, till they were bright. William inspects them and says they remind him of ripe chestnuts, though Ren has no idea what he’s referring to. Some kind of fruit, he thinks, though he can’t imagine a fruit that looks like shoes."  (p. 139).  
"Three plump chickens are in the wooden coop at the back. They’ll be made into chicken cutlets and Inchi Kabin, crispy twice-fried chicken served with sweet-and-spicy sauce. Local beef is tough and lean, and comes from water buffalo, so Ah Long will make beef rendang, slow-cooked dry curry with coconut, to round out the main dishes." (p. 164).
"Ah Long is already busy in the kitchen, stirring a large pot of beef rendang, slow cooked with coconut milk, and aromatic with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and cardamom.  ... dessert comes out. Sago gula Malacca, pearls of tapioca drizzled with coconut milk and dark brown coconut-sugar syrup, and kuih bingka ubi, that fragrant golden cake made from grated tapioca root." (pp. 199- 205).
I'm grateful to Carol for recommending this book!

This review copyright © 2020 by mae sander. 

6 comments:

My name is Erika. said...

I've read this book and I really enjoyed it. It's a really fascinating story!

Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

All that food sounds glorious, except the tinned food in metal coffins! I wonder if names determine ones fate?

Iris Flavia said...

A bit out of context: I don´t like to throw away food. But I had to. Fried chicken. Smelled so bad, it went to the bin.

I also have to be careful on books. I have soooo many to read, in paper and on kindle...

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

This sounds interesting. Thanks Mae.

Divers and Sundry said...

This book sounds right down my alley :) I'll keep an eye out for it. (I do really miss being able to wander the used book store aisles.)

Claudia said...

Definitely going on my TBR list. I just finished a C.S Harris novel, you might also enjoy. Who Speaks for the Damned, in her Regency sleuth, St. Cyr, series. One of the central characters is a half Chinese orphan named Ji.