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Secret costs of war

In a family from the middle of the last century that is seemingly living the American dream, turmoil lurks just below the surface

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Tigers in Red Weather

By Liza Klaussmann

Little, Brown and Company, 368 pages, $25.99


What is happiness? This is one of the key themes of Liza Klaussmann’s “Tigers in Red Weather”. Not only the notion of happiness, but also its derivatives, how it is acquired and displayed and, perhaps most importantly, how it can be maintained, however small.

From lying on a dock soaking in the sun instead of engaging in the duties other housewives busy themselves with, to competing on tennis courts, to observing people, to completing a magnum opus — different things make the different characters happy. And sometimes happiness can only be found in a bottle, or a vial of pills.

An epic historical novel, “Tigers” examines the lives of a family in the middle of the last century. Seemingly living the American dream, the five main characters are revealed to be far less perfect when each of them gets the chance to narrate from their own perspective common events and incidents known only to them between 1944 and 1969. It is a story of two cousins, Nick and Helena, their respective husbands, Hughes and the sidelined Avery, and the children, Daisy and Ed.

The war-ravaged world trying to rebuild itself is mirrored in the family. And like some emerged from the Second World War worse off than others, so do the members of the family, with their economic and social inequalities. This leads to a secret resentment which acts as a catalyst to some of the conflicts they endure.

There is Nick, whose unconventional beauty and character tend to get her whatever she wants. She is a version of that epitome of the “impatient plantation belle”, Scarlett O’Hara. Tiger House, where she grew up and where most of the novel is set, is also not unlike Tara, in spirit at least — it is a bungalow next to the sea where year after year the grandest parties are thrown. The meticulous Hughes harbours a secret of his own from the war and has suspicions about the events surrounding a murder. Daisy goes about the difficult task of growing up and exploring love.

The cottage Nick’s father built for Helena’s family is next door, but Helena, Avery and Ed live in Hollywood, where Avery works in the film industry, consumed by his private project — immortalising a former lover in film. Helena feels isolated in Tinseltown, and succumbs to the resulting pressures. Ed, meanwhile, busies himself with his “research” into human behaviour.

One summer, while the two children are in their early teens, they discover the body of a maid who has been murdered. This being a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are seldom kept, the rumour mill works overtime with speculations of who could have committed the crime. There is also the question of how the children who see the mutilated body will be affected, especially the rather peculiar Ed.

This greater narrative explores the Shakespearean-theme appearance versus reality. An exercise in perspective, it encourages the reader to question the events — both private and shared, between the family members and the greater community — that shape the relationships between them. Everyone seems perfect, but turmoil lurks just below the surface. The characters face the challenge of projecting this image we, and their community, have of them — loving spouses, responsible parents and respectful children. Looking at their lives, the reader is encouraged to question their level of happiness through the struggle of hiding pain, of maintaining the illusion — to other family members and the world at large — that everything is fine. The characters are complex enough to accept that nobody is purely good or evil, making it easier for the reader to do the same.

“Tigers” subtly plays with the complicated idea of marriages, happy and unhappy, without indicting the concept. Are these couples trapped in loveless marriages? Or, is it that they don’t conform to idealistic notions of romantic love that makes us think of them as such?

We are left examining our own secrets, the things we keep from our loved ones, often to protect them. But the book in its realism doesn’t shy away from looking at what happens when what we believe to be secret gets exposed, as it is often the case in real life.

“Tigers” is a highly polished yet unaffected piece of writing. Klaussmann’s detailed descriptions with delicate phrasing make the scenes come alive. Her characters are well defined and grow through depictions of their own acts and events described by others. Her style of writing is almost a throwback to the era she is writing about, yet her handling of it is anything but dated. She writes of a bygone era, but the struggles of her protagonists can be transposed to the present due to their universality.

An engaging read, “Tigers” justifies the intense bidding war that preceded its publication. Klaussmann’s debut novel fits comfortably in the genre of historical fiction but stays clear of clichés associated with it.