Makes sexy eyes at themes of sex and violence - then backs off

20 October 2019 - 00:00

Published in the Sunday Times (20/10/2019)

The Night Tiger ***
Yangsze Choo
Quercus, R330 

Trying to explain to strangers what Yangsze Choo's The Night Tiger is about can feel a bit like operating a GPS system that only speaks Jamaican patois. Very little of what you say is going to make sense but somehow the broader point will come across (hopefully). As an exercise it can be fun, especially when you get to the bits about mystic rivers and tigers. Sadly, telling people about the book may be more entertaining than actually reading it, which is a pity because, to paraphrase my grade 7 English teacher, it has so much potential.

Set in 1930s Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), The Night Tiger reads a bit like a sanitised LSD trip for book-club moms that starts with a little boy named Ren. With his last breath, Ren's master bequeaths Ren to a louche English doctor, leaving him with the instruction to return his missing finger. While all of this is going on, Ji Lin, a dressmaker-cum-dancer, is grappling with how to pay off her mother's gambling debts and the tingly sensations her stepbrother gives her.

What follows is a literary garden maze that takes a turn past weretigers (think werewolves with stripes), Chinese numerology and Pornhub's stepsibling fetish sans any porn. Chuck in a few mysterious deaths and some fecund jungle scenery and you have the recipe for what should be a pretty entertaining novel.

The problem is, it is not. It comes off as passable but bland. The Night Tiger makes sexy eyes at themes of sex and violence before demurring when everything gets serious. Perhaps asking for more is gratuitous but it feels more like Choo is being purposefully coy with the grittier aspects of life in the name of "decency".

If you have a mother-in-law who enjoys an afternoon G&T in the garden and has colonial sensibilities, she'll enjoy this one. Similarly, it makes a good read if you need to kill time before picking up Chad and Dylan from archery practice. If, however, you crave something with a little more spice, look elsewhere.


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