Superstitions in the Dark
Buried away in the small house she shares with her husband and their children, ages 11 and 13, are the abandoned pages of a novel Yangsze Choo worked on for eight years.
“It was really, really terrible and is hidden away forever. Forever!” Choo exclaims, laughing, during a call to her home in Palo Alto, California. But as she discusses her new novel, The Night Tiger, it is apparent just how deep and abiding those early themes have been in her writing life.
Choo, who speaks with a British accent, is from Malaysia and spent her early childhood in that former British colony before her father, a diplomat, was posted for extended periods to Japan and Germany and also Thailand and the Philippines. She went to Harvard, where she met her husband, and worked as a management consultant before the couple moved to California about 13 years ago. “I now describe myself as an unemployed housewife,” she says wryly.
Given her accent, you could imagine Choo to be kind of proper or a bit reserved. And you would be wrong. During our call, she is enthusiastic and funny. She laughs heartily. She jolts the conversation with exclamations like “I was super excited!” She describes “a really fab Victoria sponge cake” recipe that has recently forced her to “scamper on a treadmill like a hamster.” She marvels that there is now an app that replicates the clink and murmur of a coffee shop so you don’t feel lonely when you write. She sometimes interviews the interviewer.
Her well-received debut novel, The Ghost Bride (2013), is set in Malaya in the 1890s and concerns a young girl who, in accordance with a legendary Chinese tradition, receives a proposal from a family to become a ghost bride to their only son, who died under questionable circumstances. The Night Tiger is set in colonial Malaya in the 1930s, and the “night tiger” of its title lurks in the underbrush of a thicket of interconnected mysteries and unsolved killings.
Reserved? Proper? Hardly. “My mom said to me, ‘Can’t you write something cheerful? Dead people, ghosts, and now this book is about tigers eating people! Why don’t you write something uplifting?’”
Of course, Choo’s parents, and especially her mother, are sources of some of the stories and fables that wend their way into the narrative fabric of the book. Choo interviewed her parents frequently to develop a tactile sense of an earlier era in what is now Malaysia. Fascinated by the black and white bungalows built to house British civil servants, she learned that as a girl her mother had a young friend who worked as a maidservant in one of those houses.
“Growing up I realized that there was very little literature on Malaysia,” Choo says. “And what there was was primarily written by British writers like Somerset Maugham. But hearing my mom’s stories about her friend the maid, I thought, there is a whole other story about the local people. I realized that I’ve always been hearing the local side, and yet what is documented is really the colonial side.”
The Night Tiger follows the intersecting lives of two young Malayans. Ren is an 11-year-old houseboy in the service of a kindly, ailing British doctor who believes he has become a “weretiger,” a murderous, mythical beast that can assume human form during daylight. To put an end to the beast, the doctor makes Ren promise to locate and restore his missing finger to his corpse after he dies. Ren, who is also haunted by the death of his twin brother (and feels his presence still as a kind of electrical charge), has 49 days to accomplish this mission. At the same time, hoping to provide for the boy’s future, the doctor sends Ren to serve a British surgeon named William Acton. The surgeon is a guilt-ridden reprobate, and in his vicinity, deadly tiger attacks begin, to Ren’s alarm.
“I think at 11 you are at the zenith of childhood,” Choo says, explaining the combination of confidence and naivete in Ren. “My kids were growing up through these ages while I was writing this book. An 11-year-old knows how to do childhood well. You are big enough, strong enough, and you can walk quite far. You can do all the housework. But you haven’t hit puberty, so your world hasn’t started to change. You are at the very top form of being a child.”
The novel’s other central character is Ji Lin, a brilliant student whose stepfather believes she should work instead of going on to university. Her stepbrother, Shin, with whom she shares the same birthday and a love-hate relationship, is sent to study to become a doctor while she is apprenticed to a dressmaker. To help pay her mother’s gambling debts, Ji Lin also secretly works in a dance hall. She enters the story when an unlucky man, who carries the doctor’s missing finger for luck, spills a vial with the finger into her hand.
To create Ji Lin, Choo burrowed back into her abandoned novel, where she had tried to develop a character who worked in a dance hall. While researching that failed novel, Choo had read a book by an author who wrote about visiting “a strange dance hall [where] all these girls were for hire but afterward were strictly segregated. It was weirdly prudish.” Choo deftly captures that menacing strangeness in her fictionalized version.
In slowly bringing these two characters together—and resolving the mysteries of a series of perplexing deaths—Choo fashions a rich and intricate tale. One of the novel’s greatest pleasures is the depth of its understory. There is, first of all, a thread of upstairs-downstairs intrigue as Choo portrays the unbalanced relationships among the British and their local servants. More than that, there are what seem to be Choo’s obsessions, or as she prefers to call them, themes.
For example, she is interested in the Chinese fascination with lucky numbers. “The belief that certain rituals would guarantee you happiness was in the back of my mind.” So were the traditional Confucian virtues, for whom her characters are named. “I didn’t plan this, I’m not that clever, but it’s curious how my characters have become the opposite of those virtues.” And Choo’s abiding interest in the nature of twins also deepens the story. “The idea is interesting because this whole novel is about different worlds—natives and colonials, the world of night and the world of day, the world of the living and the world of the dead. It’s about a lot of our unresolved fears, I think.”
Surprisingly, Choo says she did not plan out this novel. With a laugh, she explains that she had her themes, but she “never knew what was happening.” The storylines proliferated to such a degree that she had to cut about half of them out of the final novel. She has considered a sequel.
“I am happy that a lot of the thoughts I had did come out here,” she says. “I feel proud of this book. It talks about a lot of things I’ve been mulling over for a long time.”
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by James Cham.