“Tigers in Red Weather”: Massachusetts gothic

This mesmerizing novel about a family that discovers a corpse while on vacation is not your average beach book

Topics: Summer reading, What to Read, Editor's Picks,

"Tigers in Red Weather": Massachusetts gothicLiza Klaussmann

It’s tricky, explaining the allure of Liza Klaussmann’s “Tigers in Red Weather.” To judge by the qualities easiest to convey in a review — setting, characters, premise — it might sound like a readily identifiable type of novel. The action takes place on a series of hot days between 1945 and 1969. The characters, each of whom gets a section told from his or her point of view, are members of an extended family that has summered in a big old house on Martha’s Vineyard for generations. At the beginning of the book, they’re listening to Count Basie and drinking gin and tonics. By the end, they’re listening to the Doors and drinking gin and tonics. They sail. There’s an intense, ambivalent sister-sister relationship (even though the two women, Nick and Helena, are actually cousins) and an intense, ambivalent mother-daughter relationship.

If this were the type of novel it sounds like, there’d be a fatal accident or an extramarital affair or a cancer diagnosis — or maybe all three! Soapy but ultimately redemptive developments illustrating the saving grace of female friendship and familial love would ensue. The book’s cover would feature a photo of bare feet in the sand. (And I, personally, would not be able to get past the third chapter without dozing off.)

Instead, in “Tigers in Red Weather,” there’s a murder. Two children in their early teens, Nick’s daughter and Helena’s son, discover the body of a young maid in a derelict shack. There is trouble in this paradise, but not the kind that can be easily wrapped up in a nice long heart-to-heart chat over tea. Furthermore, it started long before the boy and girl, Daisy and Ed, find that very nasty surprise. It began with two young women, each embarking on marriage in the halcyon days at the end of World War II.

“Tigers in Red Weather” has the irresistible, opiate undertow of a fine Southern gothic novel; it’s best read in long, languid, effortless pulls. For that reason, while it’s not a sunny book — not with the reckless dissonance that thrums through it from beginning to end — it’s still a summer book. It’s written with the stripped-down grace of early modernist realism, and its literary aspirations are worn in its title, taken from a Wallace Stevens poem about the uncommon flaring of imagination in a conventional world. Yet it also weaves a powerful storytelling spell.

Nick, a spoiled, restless beauty, likes to think of herself as one of those imaginative flares. Of her marriage with golden boy Hughes Derringer she thinks, “They were supposed to be different, different from all the people who didn’t want things and didn’t do things and who weren’t special. They were supposed to be the kind of people who said to hell with it, who threw their wine glasses into the fireplace, who jumped off cliffs.” But when her husband returns from the war, he seems to have lost this Fitzgeraldian thread (if he ever had it in the first place). Hughes has become just about the only man in American immune to his wife’s charms.

Meanwhile, Helena has married a hard-up insurance salesman with dubious Hollywood connections and an obsession with a dead actress. Nick’s efforts to rescue her beloved cousin from this man are among the few unselfish acts she troubles herself with. Helena, however, doesn’t quite see it that way. Then there’s Helena’s son, Ed. Does anyone besides Hughes recognize that this kid is “off. Definitely off”? Ed’s one redeeming trait is his peculiar devotion to Nick and Hughes’ daughter, Daisy, who’s infatuated with a local boy who, in turn, has a big crush on Nick. It’s a mess, even before the corpse turns up.

One of the pleasures of “Tigers in Red Weather” is the way each POV section takes an event we’ve already witnessed through another character’s eyes and rotates it a quarter turn, exposing a very different interpretation. This is an extremely difficult effect to pull off; a story can lose momentum when it seems to be covering old ground. Yet Klaussman succeeds at making the reader feel that what happens is less important than how each character understands it. The path we follow is not a string of chronological events, but a twisting maze leading to each individual’s heart of darkness.

“She was an interesting person,” Ed muses, creepily, when his section of the novel comes around, “but she had cracks. And it was the cracks I was drawn to because they were the inside peeking out, a glimpse of what was hiding below the surface.” It’s an unsettling novel that makes you feel complicit with such a character, but that’s just what “Tigers in Red Weather” ends up doing. The reader, too, wants nothing so much as the next glimpse of that hidden world beneath the cracks.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>