Monday, 10 September 2012

Tigers Five: the red-weather variety

I’m slightly at a loss as to how to review this novel. Not only was this hyped heavily pre-publication – and subject to a rare bidding war between publishers – it has received glowing reviews from both readers and professsional reviewers since then. How to say that I found it not only cliched, but bloodless and boring? Usually, I would rely on the old chestnut that this ‘just wasn’t my kind of novel’ – unfortunately, it really is, and that was part of the reason I was so excited to read it in the first place.

Nick and Hughes are settling into a rather uncomfortable marriage after their long separation during the Second World War, as Nick expresses her ennui by drinking endless martinis and shocking the neighbours by wearing her new two-piece bathing suit in the garden. Nick’s cousin, Helena, is also newly married to the unreliable Avery, although Nick fondly remembers their camaderie during the war, when they drank gin from jelly jars and dealt with the horrors of disintegrating stockings. Fast-forward thirteen years and Nick’s daughter Daisy is struggling with the demands of adolescence during a hot summer at the Tiger House, thrashing her rivals on the tennis court but failing to win in games of flirtation. While Helena struggles with depression, her peculiar son, Ed, watches everything that is happening and begins to uncover secrets that have been long-buried. When the body of a local girl is found, these existing tensions inevitably rise to boiling point and relationships begin to break down.

From the back cover, one might assume Tigers in Red Weather is a long set-piece, something like LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, with the increasing summer heat proving the catalyst for emotional revelations. Actually, it spans more than twenty years, and suffers for it. At times, the plot seems to build momentum, drawing the reader in, but no sooner are we engaged then the years skip forwards or backwards, and what pace was gained is swiftly lost. This is particularly noticeable in the two sections set in the 1940s. The novel begins strongly, with the sense of pressure Nick feels expertly conveyed, and we immediately realise that she must find some release, or something catastrophic will happen. However, this immediate tension is resolved in a couple of pages – and the novel didn’t grip me again until another flashback to the 1940s, when temptation visits another character. Compounding this pacing problem, the novel uses the device of multiple narrators, which can be extremely effective – however, once we leave one character’s head, we never revisit them, which means that many of the stories feel artificially unfinished and foreshortened.

However, it wasn’t only these structural problems that made me feel this novel was a failure. Quite frankly, it didn’t seem sure what it wanted to be. Lisa Kraussman seems to be gesturing towards The Beautiful and Damned, but ends up with something that is closer to Revolutionary Road, but without that novel’s fascinating analysis and insight. These characters are not the decadent bohemians that Nick apes in her early chapters, but essentially ordinary upper-class people with banal everyday problems to deal with. The exception, of course, is the baffling Ed, but Kraussmann characterises him in such a way that pretty much every cliché you can imagine for such a boy is ticked off the list, with the unfortunate side-effect of making the novel’s plot fairly predictable. In consequence, the novel falls uneasily between two stools; it can’t decide whether it’s a glamorous thriller about avant-garde people who drink whiskey sours and take drugs and engage in exciting affairs, or whether it’s a much more mundane dissection of family life. It is at least new to read about characters who are both boring and dissolute.

Finally, I was not convinced by Kraussman’s writing. She faces the double challenge of writing individual voices for each of her characters, and placing these within a convincingly historical setting, and I believe she falls short on both counts. The five characters who narrate sound disconcertingly similar, and occasionally I found myself forgetting that we had in fact switched narrators. It’s difficult to detail this in a review, but one minor example is that both Hughes and Daisy describe Nick’s new skirt as ‘poppy-red’, a simile that seems too specific to be shared. And as for the history, the novel has been well-researched and it shows – far too much. It commits the irritating crime that a lot of historical novels share of name-dropping brands and details to create ‘atmosphere’ – for example, when Daisy lists her special possessions for little reason; ‘ten Archie comics; the Silver City Pink nail polish she had brought at the five and dime... a pair of oxidising copper clip-ons’. (Nick does a similar thing earlier on when she pointlessly itemises the contents of her trunk.) The most striking thing about this novel, in fact, is the title – borrowed from a 1915 Wallace Stevens poem – and although Kraussmann tries to live up to that evocation of a life starved of imagination, this wasn’t what I got from this.

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading most of this novel, but don’t believe the hype – this is light fiction, little more.

[For my other posts on supposedly tiger-related novels, see Tigers One, on Lionel Shriver's The Female of the Species, Tigers Two, on Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, Tigers Three, on Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, and Tigers Four, on The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht.]

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