Review: Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

What a blistering and brilliant novel. Booker Prize Winner in 1987, Moon Tiger takes on themes of history, memory, morality and all the mess of what it means to be human. Claudia Hampton is 76 years old, unmarried and a celebrated historian. She is dying in a hospital bed and as she drifts in and out of consciousness, she tries to draft another book. The subject is a history of the world using her own life as a blueprint. But who exactly is she? And will anyone ever be able to truly recount her life?

Despite winning the Booker Prize in 1987, I have never met anyone who has read this book and that feels like a tragedy. I have read a fair few of Lively’s novels over the years but had grown accustomed to hearing her dismissed as a purveyor of high-brow chick lit, writing for the type of women who shop at Harrod’s. When Moon Tiger won the big prize, it was dismissed as the ‘housewife’s choice’. At this point, I feel like the shade of Jane Austen rises up at this point to shake her fist and proclaim that in the mere novel, ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’ is displayed. The institutionalised misogyny of the literary world is really such fun!

The moon tiger of the title refers to a type of mosquito repellants used during Lively’s childhood in Egypt. It appears on the bed beside Claudia and Tom as they spend a last night together in Cairo during World War Two. The description of the object is stunning, ‘The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.‘ The spiral of the moon tiger is symbolic of the novel as a whole, with Claudia’s narrative sprawling in different directions. Her memories appear disordered but there is the one constant point – she has loved only Tom and as the elderly woman lies in her hospital bed, there is nobody left who knows that.

Claudia has become one of my all-time favourite protagonists. To call her a heroine feels reductive. She is not ‘nice’. She is frequently selfish. Her daughter has had plenty of reason to feel resentment. Her relentlessly kind sister-in-law has even more so. But Claudia has also carried pain. She has rarely been directly spiteful. And she has tried to do the right thing. Moon Tiger captures vividly how Claudia remains consistently herself and yet is also seen completely differently by each of the characters who are closest to her.

We also realise how life has left Claudia both burnished and broken and that each glimpse we have of her from her memories is again a slightly different version. Claudia describes very vividly the relationship we can have with our past selves, ‘There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.‘ This phrase tugs at me. I think of my meeting with my biological father just after I turned thirty and how I was surprised to feel on my shoulders the grip of my five year-old self whose resentment was far stronger than my own. I think of the glimpses I catch of myself in childhood on the face of my son. The past has little power over me now but there are times when it catches me unawares.

Indeed, the march of time is the most obvious significance of the moon tiger; it will fade away as will all things. Claudia asks Tom to explain to her the story of his life, trying to keep him safe in her mind ahead of their dreaded parting. When Tom reaches the point where he meets her, she remarks that she ‘likes this part of the story best’. Inwardly she prays that they will have a happy ending. But time ticks on and Tom will have to return to the frontline and he will perish. We meet Claudia when her own moon tiger is very nearly fizzled into ashes but although she admits it to nobody, she burned brightest when she was with Tom.

Moon Tiger is perhaps my favourite type of novel – less about plot than feeling. Indeed with its structure, spoilers hardly apply. We see how Claudia has constructed her life and achieved success after Tom’s death. She never speaks of him. And yet he remains in everything she does. Lively captures Claudia’s stoic response to her grief with stunning simplicity. Claudia carries on. She survives. And she bears the pain as that wretched march of time drags her further and further from him although she can never forget.

In an interview, Lively commented that the book represented her and Claudia’s rejection of linear memory. This happens because that happened and everything is connected. Lively commented, ‘In our heads, everything happens at once; the past is a whole lot of slides, any one of which may surface at any moment, some of which are buried, others waiting to surge forth and surprise.‘ Particularly resonant is the scene when the older Claudia encountered someone who had known her from the Cairo days and she was unexpectedly assaulted by memories. Unwilling to betray Tom by discussing him with her lover Jasper, Claudia retreats to bed, momentarily poleaxed by her grief.

Moon Tiger is a brief book, speeding through momentous events with nary a word wasted. The emotional weight it conveys is incredible. We see how Claudia has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and how she has willingly misled others rather than letting them see to the truth of her. We see also how she has failed to understand others, particularly in the case of her daughter. It is interesting that all attempts to make a screen adaptation of Moon Tiger floundered as to how to recreate Claudia’s unique perspective, an acknowledgment that we never really know her.

Fascinating and frustrating, Claudia is an unforgettable central character. In the months since I read Moon Tiger, it has lingered with me. It has made me confront parts of my own past that I carry with me. It’s strange to complain that a Booker prize-winning novel feels under-appreciated but Moon Tiger certainly does. This is a story of how to survive one’s life, full of humour, grief, pain but more than anything steeped in love – its themes are universal. It feels surprising that it has faded so fast from the public consciousness. Yet this is also a splendid irony for a story whose central character is determined to keep her secrets intact.

Still, while I have largely outgrown my urge to thrust books at people that I think they ought to read, I can see that moving forward, I will be fighting the urge to bulk-buy Moon Tiger and hand it out to my nearest and dearest on special occasions. Pioneering the ‘unlikable female character’ decades before it was cool, this is a book that blazes from first line to last. Read it, read it, read it!

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Published by Penguin UK on 2010
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 224
ISBN: 9780141044842

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2 thoughts on “Review: Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

  1. “The housewives’ choice” made me shriek aloud with rage. People are just terrible! And I say that as someone who mayyyyyybe wouldn’t enjoy this book because I do love plot, but I am so mad and spiteful about “the housewives’ choice” that I might give it a try anyway. 😛

    1. I know, right?? They said similar things about Anne Enright’s The Gathering – as if putting a woman at the centre of a story automatically means it’s just for girls 😡
      I hope you would enjoy this book – it’s very beautiful and also not super-duper long – let me know if you end up giving it a try! 😉

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