Bewitching tale spanning family and the macabre



By Choo Yangsze

Quercus/Paperback/473 pages/$27.95/ Major bookstores/

4 stars

A young houseboy in 1930s colonial Malaya is tasked to search for his dead master’s missing finger, which turns up in the possession of a reluctant dance hall hostess.

The incredible premise alone is enough to make one crack the spine of Malaysian-American writer Choo Yangsze’s sophomore novel, in which magic, maybe-twins and man-eating man-tigers make for a captivating concoction.

When Ji Lin’s day job as a dressmaker’s apprentice fails to pay off her mother’s gambling debts, she starts moonlighting at Ipoh’s May Flower Dance Hall.

Because this is disreputable employment for a young woman, she has to keep it a secret from her abusive stepfather and his son from a previous marriage, Shin, a dashing medical student close to her in age and ambition, but not hampered by gender as she is.

When a dance hall patron leaves her a macabre souvenir – a shrivelled finger in a glass bottle – Ji Lin ropes Shin in to help her track down its origins, which complicates their already fraught sibling rivalry.

In the nearby town of Batu Gajah, 11-year-old Ren is searching for such a finger. He has 49 days to bury it with his late master Dr MacFarlane, who bequeathed him to another British doctor, William Acton.

These are uncertain times for a medical man in the Kinta Valley.

Fingers vanish from the morgue of the hospital where William works, corpses keep cropping up and rumour has it that a man-eating tiger stalks the area.

There is a mysterious connection between Ji Lin and Ren, a web that also enfolds Shin, Ren’s dead twin brother Yi and possibly William. Something links them like the fingers of a hand.

Choo crafts a bewitching tale that traipses deftly between mirror worlds: the upstairs and downstairs of colonial households; the scandalous yet strictured dance hall and the hierarchies of the hospital; the world of the living and an afterlife of lonely railway stations and a river in which lurks something darker.

While the myth of the were-tiger is a febrile source of dread for much of the novel, it is curiously defanged by the end. Humanity, ultimately, proves more monstrous.

If you like this, read: Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015, $32.38, Books Kinokuniya), set in a small Indonesian coastal town, in which a young man possessed by a supernatural white tigress commits a violent murder.

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