Palo Alto-based author Yangsze Choo is currently at work on her third novel.
With a murder-mystery plot as strange and lush and entangled as the jungles of 1930s Malay—where recent The New York Times bestseller The Night Tiger ($27, Flatiron Books), takes place—it’s no surprise that author Yangsze Choo says she “writes by the seat of [her] pants.”
“When I started this book, I had no idea where it was going,” Choo says, from her home in Palo Alto. “I began with a sad and gruesome first scene—in which a dying man asks his young servant to find his severed finger—and let it run from there. I had no idea where it would lead.”
The New York Times bestselling novel The Night Tiger.
The Night Tiger is spun through different characters’ points of view; each orbits around the others like planets in a solar system, unbeknownst to the effect their gravitational pull has on someone else’s trajectory. The two main characters, for instance, know not of one another for much of the book, though their lives intertwine: The young servant, Ren, is tasked with finding his late master’s missing digit (an incomplete inventory of body parts at the time of death could result in a soul’s eternal discontent); and the quick-witted Ji Lin, whose vibrant potential is dampened by a male-dominated culture, is the accidental keeper of said extremity.
One is on a quest to recover the unaccounted for, while the other is on a mission to return it, and, in between, many more fascinating dualities unfold: At least two murders (one, perhaps, at the claws of a mythical half-human, half-beast weretiger), a man torn between two lovers, vivid dreams that bridge the earthly and spiritual realms, and the ever-fascinating master-and-servant dichotomy in Colonial Malay that Choo calls, “the Downton Abbey of the tropics.” If that weren’t enough, what of the story’s age-old superstitions about ghosts or lucky numbers that remain largely unproven, but nevertheless govern this sweltering life exotic?
“The story is always confronting the question, ‘What is real and what do you tell yourself is real?’” says Choo, who, incidentally, found the editing process for the book painfully real, since roughly half of it was redlined. “I think it’s part of the human condition to want to choose your fate, so we latch onto myths and superstitions in order to make sense of it all. At the very least, these things will always make good stories.”
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco
Photography by: Yangsze Choo Photo by James Cham; Book Cover Photo Courtesy of Publisher