The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is a beautifully-written story about age-old superstition, modern idealism, sibling rivalry and forbidden love. The following book club questions will have spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel yet, check out my review first.
Ji Lin is stuck as an apprentice dressmaker, moonlighting as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s Mahjong debts. But when one of her dance partners accidentally leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, Ji Lin plunges into an adventure full of secrets and superstitions. Eleven-year-old houseboy Ren is also on a mission, racing to fulfill his former master’s dying wish: that Ren find the man’s finger, lost years ago in an accident and bury it with his body. Ren has 49 days to do so, or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.
As the days tick relentlessly by, a series of unexplained deaths racks the district, along with whispers of men who turn into tigers. Ji Lin and Ren’s increasingly dangerous paths crisscross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms and ghostly dreamscapes.
Let’s get into the discussion questions.
- Let’s first talk about the setting of 1930s Malaysia. What are some elements that stood out to you?
- Jin Lin has dreams beyond the dressmaking and the dance hall but she’s stifled by the era. Let’s discuss some of the ways that she’s a modern girl stuck in the 1930s.
- The story revolves around a severed finger. What were your first thoughts about this going into the book? How did it help present a unique and compelling story?
- Oftentimes the book mentions that Ren feels a “tingle, like the twitch of cat whiskers, as though Yi is still with him.” What did you think about this? Do you believe he could feel Yi and a sense of danger that was to come?
- Now let’s talk about the doctor William Acton. He’s a man clouded in mystery and later we find out he has a lust for the local girls. But at the time he shows kindness to Ren. What were you impressions of him? When people start to get murdered in the area, did you think he was the killer? Why or why not?
- Much of the book centers around superstitions: mythical creatures, conversations with the dead and the Five Virtues of Confucius. Let’s discuss each of these areas:
- Mythical creatures: The spirit tiger is belief that a soul could reincarnate as a tiger. At one point, many in the village believe the murders are a result of a spirt together and Ren himself, wonders if the tiger is his deceased former master. What did you think about this?
- Conversations with the dead: In an unique twist, there’s seemingly the ability to talk with the dead. Jin Lin dreams of a train station and she talks to a little boy, Yi, who tells her his twin, Ren, is still alive. Ren also has conservations with the dead and even William dreams of a fated lake where his fiancé died. What did you make of all of this? Do you believe the intention was that they were really talking with the dead? Did Yi save Jin Lin and Shin at the end?
- Another key aspect of the story was the Five Virtues of Confucius, which is also the name of the five key characters. Ren is benevolence, charity and humanity; Yi is righteousness; Li is ritual or order; Zhi is wisdom and Xin is faithfulness. How did Ren, Yi, Jin Lin, Shin and Lydia fall in line with these ideas? During a conversation with Yi, he tells Jin Lin that maybe they are all cursed and they should have born together in the same family, or even as the same person, not separated by time and place. Do you believe there was a curse and was it broken at the end?
- Alright, let’s talk about that romance! What did you think about the forbidden love of Jin Lin and Shin? When did you start to notice they both had feelings for each other? Do you think they will end up getting married one day? Why or why not?
- Throughout everything, there’s a murder mystery. Were you surprised that there were two killers: Koh Beng and Lydia?
- Jin Lin and Shin survive an attempted murder by Koh Beng. We learn Lydia is also a murder. Ren accidentally serves William poisoned tea and he dies. Let’s discuss all of this. What happens next for Jin Lin, Shin, Ren and Lydia? Will they always be connected? If the author wrote a sequel, what would you like to see happen in it?
- What do you think are some of the key themes of this story? In what ways did this serve as a fairy tale?
What to read next
While The Night Tiger is such a unique story, here’s two other historical fiction novels that goes beyond just presenting history. (Click the titles or photos to purchase from Amazon.)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a beautifully-written novel that will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Set in coastal marshes of North Carolina, the story is part coming-of-age tale, a murder mystery, romance with some courtroom drama mixed in. The story starts off in late 1969 and town heartthrob Chase Andrews is found dead. Locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl, who was left to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina when her family abandoned her at a young age. While Kya is dismissed as ‘marsh trash,’ in reality, she’s sensitive and intelligent. When two young men from town become intrigued by her, it changes all their lives forever.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is an original spy novel full of adventure and rich settings. The story follows Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. But saying yes is also complicated. In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister and a good American.