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Updated: September 2, 2012 20:53 IST

A quintet of narratives

Parvathi Nayar
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Klaussmann’s burnished prose makes this highly anticipated debut novel a satisfying read.

The war is newly over, American soldiers are coming home to their families, and lives are being shakily rebuilt. Unfolding in these times of transition, between 1944 and 1969, are the events of Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann. Her debut novel deals with families and secrets, where she peeks beneath the bright exteriors of cocktail parties, jazz, and privilege to reveal murky interiors.

The New York Times journalist’s novel has been a highly anticipated event in literary circles, given that she got an amazing seven-figure deal for a debut work. There’s also the question of her literary pedigree — Klaussmann is the great-great-great-granddaughter of American novelist Herman Melville.

Structurally the novel is composed of a quintet of narratives from the perspectives of Nick, the woman with “it”; her enigmatic husband Hughes; their elfin daughter Daisy; Nick’s poor cousin Helena; and the latter’s seriously strange son Ed. Each section deals with events within this 25-year time period in their lives.

Just so many

The narratives coalesce around Tiger House, the family’s holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. If Nick — rich, attractive and strong-willed — is the vibrant heart of the novel, both her cousin and daughter suffer from forever feeling in her shadow. She has men flocking to her — with mixed results — but the love of her husband eludes her.

As she memorably tells her 12-year old daughter, who is suffering the pangs of first love: “If there’s one thing you can be sure about in this life, it’s that you won’t always be kissing the right person.”

Marrying Mr. Right hasn’t turned out quite as planned for Helena and Nick who were both wartime brides. Helena’s husband Avery — a wannabe movie producer — is a sleazebag who keeps Helena fuzzy and submissive on a steady cocktail of prescription drugs.

Nick chafes at her endless days of empty housewifery, and at the contrasts between the life she thought she would lead and how it has all turned out: “They were supposed to be different, different from all the people who didn’t want things and didn’t do things and weren’t special.”

Meanwhile Hughes’ skeletons in the cupboard make him distant and preoccupied, and unable to reach out to Nick when he comes home from the war. 

The children find different coping mechanisms round their errant parents. Daisy plays competitive tennis; Ed constructs for himself, a creepy research project to figure out more about people and “what’s inside them”.

Dislodging the book from the confines of “housewives leading lives of quiet desperation” and into the juicier territory of Desperate Housewives, is the shocking murder of a black maid in 1959. Everyone thinks they know the murderer, but aren’t willing to break class and colour alignments to name names. We wonder if our narrators are more deeply involved in the murder than they admit to, though the murder mystery isn’t as well developed as the family drama.

There are resonances with The Great Gatsby — quite deliberate you suspect, given the protagonists who are named Nick and Daisy. Nick is both what is so attractive about the book as well as its problem — we never feel quite as connected with the other characters.

Atmospheric!

As the title itself — taken from Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Disillusionment of Ten o’ clock” — suggests, the book is exotic and atmospheric but a little abstruse as well. Each succeeding narrative partly fills the ellipses of previous narratives — by the end we have denouements and family secrets disclosed — but all the blanks aren’t always adequately filled. While every motive and every character contradiction need not be explained, some threads of the book remain obstinately opaque.

But what makes Tigers a taste that lingers with complex and sophisticated pleasures is Klaussmann’s writing. Even if the characters aren’t particularly easy to sympathise with, or even if what’s written about isn’t entirely new, the burnished prose, exuding glamour and subtle menace, makes the book a more satisfying read than a recounting of the plot would suggest.

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