Tigers in Red Weather, By Liza Klaussmann

A stay in Martha's Vineyard you won't forget in a hurry

Viv Groskop
Saturday 04 August 2012 19:56

What an unexpectedly brilliant read this is. It starts off all Stepford Wives and Valley of the Dolls and ends up somewhere in the territory of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides or Donna Tartt's The Secret History. This novel is a slow-burner which you can only really appreciate once you can take in the whole book. It is told in five parts from the standpoints of the main characters Nick, Daisy, Helena, Hughes and Ed. The whole thing has the cinematic feel of a kaleidoscope, conjuring up the idea that perspective is always changing.

Nick is arguably the book's lynchpin and certainly its most attractive character, in all respects. We meet her when she is a young wartime bride married to Hughes, who is away serving in the US army in Britain. When he returns, their relationship is difficult. Hughes seems distant and Nick, bored and rejected, struggles with her role as a housewife.

Nick is the woman who has "It" which means she can get anyone to do whatever she wants. This means her relationship with Helena, her cousin and fellow war-time bride, is complicated. Helena worships Nick but is also jealous of her. Nick, meanwhile, is deeply suspicious of Helena's husband Avery, a wannabe Hollywood mogul who only seems interested in Helena when he thinks she can squeeze some money out of someone, usually Nick.

Nick and Helena's destiny is tied to Tiger House, their family's holiday home on the island of Martha's Vineyard, off Cape Cod, where most of the book is set. There is the sense that Nick and Helena are the last of their line: the house's glory days have passed. As the narrative switches from Nick to her daughter, Daisy, there is little hope for the next generation: Daisy looks like a golden girl – and can beat anyone at tennis – but she's plagued by insecurities and, like her aunt Helena, feels in her mother's shadow.

As Daisy takes up the story in the 1950s, the novel's key moment emerges: the summer Daisy and her cousin Ed, Helena's son, find the corpse of a local family's maid in the hideout where Ed used to go to avoid tennis lessons. This is also the summer Daisy falls in love, with Tyler, the best-looking young man on the island. And it's the summer Ed, already a deeply disturbed teenager, really starts to unravel.

With Helena's section the truth begins to emerge: she has been on drugs for most of her marriage, at Avery's instigation, to keep her quiet. Avery's never around and when he is, he encourages Ed's macabre tendencies. Then, with Hughes and Ed left to wrap up the tale, it's suddenly obvious that this is a family with secrets spanning many decades.

This is an ambitious undertaking for a first novel but Klaussmann really pulls it off, turning an elegant period piece into a creepy psychological thriller. The characters are cruelly drawn and should be unsympathetic but there is something compelling about the setting and the cinematic feel of the book: you are drawn to these strange types without understanding why. There's just the right mix of glamour and tension. The result is like the dish of tomatoes in aspic which Nick slaves over for hours and then drops. Everything is perfectly suspended for a moment. Until the mess of life intervenes. A wonderfully clever, chilling summer read.

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