If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.
Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too. Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.
Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it? Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.
Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal, a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?
The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.
Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!
Publication Date: February 12, 2019