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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo came out this past February, and I am super excited to get it out of the library and read it this summer! Why is that, you might ask? Is it because it has already been getting rave reviews and been placed on more than one Book List? Is it the gorgeous cover with a feminine silhouette against a starry sky? All good guesses, but no. These factors just enhance the book’s appeal and reaffirm for me that Choo is an absolute master storyteller.
I read Choo’s first novel The Ghost Bride a few years ago after being charmed by its cover, a woman reclining on a bed of red petals surrounded by golden stars at the bookstore where I was working at the time. (I now work part-time in a library, so books still have plenty of opportunities to woo me.) After devouring it from cover to cover, it became one of my first staff picks for the store.
The setting is the real port town Malacca in 1893 colonial Malaya, where we find a mix of peoples and cultures, including Chinese. Li Lan’s mother passed away from small pox when she was very young, and now the family has gone bankrupt from her father’s poor choices. Malacca’s most prosperous family, the Lims, have made a surprising offer to Li Lan’s father, that Li Lan should become the wife of their deceased son, Lim Tian Ching, who died under mysterious circumstances.
Lim Tian Ching’s ghost visits Li Lan in her dreams where he attempts (poorly) to woo her, as well as insist that he was murdered by the family’s new (and better looking) heir, his cousin Tian Bai. Complicating matters (as if they weren’t complicated enough), Li Lan is attracted to Tian Bai. The dreams take a toll on Li Lan’s health, draining her energy (as ghosts are wont to do). Eventually, as events progress, she decides to investigate Lim Tian Ching’s claims under most unlikely circumstances herself. Li Lan enters the afterlife, the Plains of the Dead, and enlists the aid of a somewhat capricious spirit, Er Lang, to guide her.
Li Lan encounters less than friendly ghosts and must avoid ox-headed demons (traditional guardians of the Underworld) while she grows weaker and in danger of dying for good the longer she remains outside of her body. In addition to relying on food and paper offerings for money and other goods to “survive” in the afterlife, ghosts must contend with the bureaucracy of the dead (it just never ends, folks).
While based on the traditional Chinese afterlife, this landscape is Yangsze Choo’s beautiful and imaginative creation. Likewise, Choo brings late 19th century Malaya vividly to life for the reader. The setting was as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. Without the richness of the setting, this story could not exist.
Li Lan proves to be a plucky heroine who does pretty well for herself after being thrust into a bewildering situation set against seemingly impossible odds. In a time when women were considered little more than the property of the men in their lives, she refuses to let her future be chosen for her.
Not only was this a lovely and fun read, but I found it refreshing to find a supernatural historical novel (with the right touch of romance) that has nothing to do with Europe or Christianity. Malaysia is also not a particularly popular location for authors in English, so I enjoyed having this part of the world spotlighted. Choo’s charming descriptions made me really want to visit (though, of course, the world has changed much in the past 125 years).
If you enjoy stories set in the 19th century, about Asia, or of the supernatural, The Ghost Bride must be on your reading list.