Friday, 10 August 2012

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red Weather “The epitome of East Coast glamour, scene of vodka martinis and moonlit conspiracies, Tiger House is where the beautiful and the damned have always come to play,” reads the blurb for Tigers in Red Weather. When I first read this, it sounded glamourous, romantic even - I pictured that idyll of lounging in the summer sun, not a care in the world; the rich husband, the green expanse of lawn, the white painted boathouse. But reading it again, I can see what it really says, the clues it is giving as to what this book really contains - “moonlit conspiracies” and “the beautiful and the damned” jump out at me, and it sums the book up quite perfectly. I am naive and perhaps picked this book up thinking the wrong things, but ironically, this is exactly what the story inside gives away: what looks like glamour and perfection on the outside inevitably has a dark undercurrent running through it.

Set predominantly in the late fifties, Tigers shows a post-war society where women have a certain role they are expected to play: happy housewife and social entertainer. Told by the five main characters - firstly the women, Nick, her cousin Helena, Nick’s daughter Daisy, then the men, Nick’s husband Hughes and Helena’s son Ed, gradually piecing together an entirely different picture. A picture of unfulfilled matrimony, of frustrated histories, of secrets and hidden bitterness.

Its a gentle story, beginning in 1945 as Nick and Helena separate after wartime hardships to start their lives anew as married women, before jumping twelve years ahead for the reader to see where their lives have taken them. This is the summer of 1959 and they have all gathered at Tiger House. Daisy has her first crush and is bent on trouncing her sugary rival, Peaches, in the annual tennis championships, but things are turned upside down when she and Ed find a dead body, though it seems to have a bigger impact on the adults than it does on her. Hughes, after years of essentially ignoring his wife, suddenly finds he can’t resist her, but is he too late to win her back? Helena, demoralised and unhappy seems to be completely oblivious of everything going on around her, but is she really as ignorant and soft as she appears? And Ed. There is definitely something odd about that boy, but Hughes is the only one to see it - where will it lead and what will the consequences be?

Tigers greatly reminded me of Joanne Harris’ more recent work, her darker novels like Gentleman and Players. Everyone has a role that they must play and on the outside everything looks pristine. Its like that old saying about the duck: calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath. Ed hits the nail on the head on page 324: “I told you,” he [says], “no one says anything they really mean. None of it’s real.” At the end of the day, they are all pretending - saying one thing, when what they are really thinking, or what they wish they were really doing, is something quite entirely different. It makes the reader wonder how much you can ever really know another person.

I really enjoyed the book. Each character has a secret embedded within them, something that trails around behind them, a weight on their back, that they don’t want to admit to themselves let alone to those closest to them. It’s a very revealing experience to read. There is Hughes and his wartime affair. Nick and her love for a man who for years has responded to her only by pinning her into the housewife role she hates, rather than treating her as an equal in their marriage. Helena and her nasty, abusive husband; in her weakness, instead of turning against him, she turns against the only person who genuinely wants to help her. Daisy who cannot admit that her fiancee is her more interested in her mother than in her. And, again, Ed. Ed is the one who is closest to seeing it as it is, and even saying it as it is. But he has his own secrets. It is extremely clever of Klaussmann (who is, incidentally, the great great great granddaughter of Herman Melville) to leave his viewpoint until last - through everybody else’s stories, she leads us to our own conclusions regarding Ed’s role in the unravelling of Tiger House - but, even then, do things really play out quite like the reader thinks they do?

What at first appears to be light is shadowed by darkness. There are the trappings of the big house and the big summer party, but all is not as it seems. “If there’s one thing you can be sure of in this life,” Nick says, “It’s that you won’t always be kissing the right person.” But who is the right person? And how do you know? How long can you hide from yourself?

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