"The piano was the big, glossy concert sort with a propped-up lid. A young woman was bent so far over its keys she appeared to have no head. Sheets of music were spread out in front of her - and there were black specks swarming all over the cream paper. Iris took two steps forward, her mouth agape. What, what, what? The music notes were moving! ... they weren't notes at all but ants almost as big as her hand."
Iris is sent to visit her elderly relative in Spain - the eccentric and reclusive Aunt Ursula sister of the famous surreal artist James Freer. Iris does not really understand why her parents are so desperate for her to spy on her aunt. There is a promise of inheritance but this feels distant and distasteful to Iris. Aunt Ursula is a larger than life character. Her home is filled with very strange art and as the days unfold strange things start to appear. Boots that look like feet pull her around the forest. She sees the piano mentioned above and the tennis court with huge sunflowers but the thing that fascinates her the most is a painting which has her name - Iris and the Tiger. Iris was the wife and true love of James Freer but when Iris eventually sees the painting in an art gallery in Barcelona there is no tiger. This is a mystery she is determined to solve.
Meanwhile developers keep appearing. They have white vans and surveying equipment and seem determined to turn the estate into a theme park. Iris and her new Spanish friend Jordi, who lives on the estate with his father, begin their exploration of the special and magic places inside and outside of Bosque de Nubes. There is also the mystery of Aunt Ursula herself - she keeps disappearing and when Iris looks at a photo taken thirty years ago it also seems Aunt Ursula is not aging.
Here is a review with more plot details. Here is an interview with Leanne Hall. Here are some very detailed teaching notes. Before beginning this book I recommend you listen to an interview with the author on Radio National. During the interview Leanne also reads one of the scenes that fascinated me - a disused tennis court where enormous sunflowers are engaged in a game of tennis using their huge leaves as rackets.
I took a long time to read Iris and the Tiger. I did find some of the characters confusing - I wanted to know their motives and sort out who was good and who was bad. While the descriptions of the paintings are good I also just wanted to see them. I don't have any real experience of surreal art and I am sure some of my students may find this confusing too. The illustrator site has a few larger versions of the images on the cover. James Freer is not a real artist but I desperately wanted him to be real. This book demands some perseverance but the final pages are rewarding. You might also enjoy The Billionaire's Curse. If you like the idea of mysterious things arising from art take a look at The Medici Curse.
You can see below Iris and the Tiger won our NSW Premier's literary prize and this is one of the reasons I wanted to share this book with you. I don't think it will appeal to all young readers but I do know some avid readers will find this book quite different, exciting and engrossing.