You cannot know of what an old sailor dreams, but perhaps he, as Wallace Stevens’ poem suggests, dreams of tigers in red weather. It’s a vivid imagining, but only the old sailor has experienced his dream.*
In Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel, each of five characters contributes a substantial section of the narrative, so that readers can assemble their own understandings of the events therein. In the end, readers are as close as they can be to these other experiences, even if they do not inhabit their dreams.
The dream-life, the life of the imagination is vitally important to the characters in Tigers in Red Weather. And, yet, on the surface, it can be read as a murder mystery.
The story is inspired by the summers that Liza Klaussmann spent on Martha’s Vineyard, although she wrote the book in rainy London, England.**
The fictionalized island summer home is Tiger House, which becomes a second-home (of different sorts) for each of the story’s narrators.
“It was the kind of day that you didn’t need to remember from a distance to know it was a good one. The bay was calm and the only thing to see were the dunes rising across it, and the gulls coming out of the beach grass every once in a while to give warning to stay away from their chicks.”
Such scenes are timeless, but the story is set in several time periods, stretching back to 1944 and forward to 1967, with particular attention to 1959.
In that year, a murder in the community touched the lives of the novel’s narrators. Throughout the novel, even the descriptions of the landscape reflect the altered perspectives as characters shift (literally and metaphorically).
“The air was more gentle here in the South. Not like at Tiger House, where the sea took it by force.”
No plot device causes more immediate and dramatic change than a death, so the murder is certainly pivotal to the novel’s development, but there are many other, relatively minor changes which underscore this theme.
From the beginning, in a scene from 1945, Nick makes this declaration to her cousin and best friend Helena:
“‘Houses, husbands and midnight gin parties,’ Nick said. ‘Nothing’s going to change. Not in any way that really matters. It will be like always.'”
The novel opens in Nick’s voice and hers is a distinctive voice indeed, particularly as much of this section of the work is in dialogue. This is the one character who is inspired by life, by Klaussmann’s grandmother in fact and she is, arguably, the heart of this novel.
(Nick’s voice felt odd in my reader’s ears, and it took time to identify what it echoed for me: the dialogue of films of the ’40s and ’50s, the sort that starred Katherine Hepburn. Authentic or awkward? I was unsure — but, as the narrative unfolded, and other voices emerged in contrast, it no longer distracted me.)
Nick’s segment is followed by Daisy’s, Nick’s and Hughes’ daughter. She is at that impressionable age, that awkward near-between age, the age at which she still believes in magic but realizes that, soon, she might not. This is evident when she overhears a conversation between her mother and Helena (whom she considers an aunt):
“It was as if her mother and aunt had been snatched away by goblins and replaced with fairies of some sort. They looked so beautiful to her, and so different, the movement of their heads and their hands in the low light throwing graceful, arching shadows across the wooden porch. They could have said anything, and she would have loved them.”
Daisy might see evidence of transformation, but not everybody experiences change in the same way, not all of the characters view it as undesirable (as Nick did in the beginning).
“He thought again about what she’d said about the murder ruining everything. He did know what she meant, but she was wrong. Nothing had changed, not really; it was just with a thing like that, you had to choose sides. And when it came to your friends, you all had to smile while you did it, pretending you were in happy agreement.”
An island is the perfect setting for sinister happenings, but there are many secrets in these narrators’ lives which stretch far beyond its shores, well into their pasts.
“Anyone who had happened to see them would have known something was going on, and the Island was a small place; everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t just walk down the street flying your secrets at full mast. And if you were stupid enough to do that, you knew it would be around town in two seconds flat.”
Things can change in two seconds. Or, not. Many of the changes in Tigers in Red Weather spiral, unfold slowly, or at least they appear to, as various layers of reality are uncovered.
Many of the characters opt instead, deliberately or accidentally, for imagination rather than the disillusionment of reality.
The author herself has a heightened appreciation for works of the imagination. “My family was really into books,” she says, and paints a scene where a mother reads to her children while they ate their meals, chewing as slowly as possible to make the stories last, taking additional helpings.
In such a household, Tigers in Red Weather is a book that could have you eating until you are stuffed.
*Wallace Stevens’ “The Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” (1915)
** All statements and ideas from/of the author shared herein were taken from her round table appearance at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, on October 27, 2012.