Penelope Lively, “Moon Tiger”

Yes. Yes, I agree with all of you who have recommended Moon Tiger. Wonderful as Penelope Lively always is, this is probably her best book to date. (It won the Booker Prize in 1987.) I actually considered going right back to the beginning to read it all over again — Moon Tiger is one of those books that deals out information artfully. Not only does Lively keep the narrative tension going this way (i.e. exactly what IS going on between Claudia and her brother Gordon?) but also she often gives us scenes that alter the meaning of what has gone before. They’re like little explosions, altering the contours of what existed before, exposing what had previously been hidden.

British M3 Tank next to burned Panzer tank in No. Africa, June 1942. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

British M3 Tank next to burned Panzer tank in No. Africa, June 1942. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

The novel begins with the elderly Claudia Hampton in a hospital bed, proclaiming that despite her advanced age and illness, she intends to write a history of the world. Pretty nervy — open your story with a character who’s trapped in a hospital bed? But Lively’s not a practitioner of the straightforward narrative, so before long we’re plunged into Claudia’s past, then her further past, then brought back to her present. We’re in her point of view, then in a third-person narrative, then in the point of view of another character. Sometimes even the dialogue overlaps between points of view, an approach that could be annoying but somehow isn’t. As for Claudia herself, she is unrepentantly uncongenial. Brilliant, stubborn, insensitive, beautiful, she has cut a swathe through mid-twentieth century highbrow England, first as a journalist based in Cairo during World War II, and later as a popular historian. She’s opinionated, impatient, and very, very interesting.

Claudia is drawn to conflict. Her longstanding relationship with Jasper, the father of her daughter Lisa, is often contentious. She’d just as soon have a loud argument as a peaceful discussion. Social convention and other people’s feelings bore her. Yet this is not one of those novels about characters whom the author despises or dislikes. Moon Tiger doesn’t even have the detachment of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. We readers are implicated in Claudia’s emotions and in the end, we are sympathetic. More, we share her thought process, which is fascinating. After all, Claudia is an historian, thinking about how narrative shapes history. The narrative of this novel is pleated and twisted like origami, to expose certain aspects of Claudia’s life to view, and to create a coherent outline. We are always aware of this process, never more so than when another voice is added at the end. But Lively is artful: she can draw attention to her materials and process while still immersing us in the illusion she creates.

A “Moon Tiger” is a form of insect repellent (to be found on eBay) — a green coil that you burn. There’s a Moon Tiger alight in one of the central scenes of the book. Atmosphere? Metaphor? Anybody want to tell me?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Penelope Lively, “Moon Tiger”

  1. Barbara says:

    Huge sigh of relief. I cannot tell you how many people to whom I have recommended this book have absolutely loathed it including almost every member of my book club. One of them pronounced it the “worst book” she had ever read. I retreated to my corner and licked my literary wounds feeling pretty dejected. I think one of the hardest things for a reader who passionately loves a book is to recommend it with great enthusiasm only to have it soundly rejected…..and then metaphorically stomped upon. Occasionally book club members STILL bring it up as an example of a poor choice while I do a slow burn…..

    Your review is beautifully written. It says it all so much better than I ever could. And I love your choice of photograph with the review. I have been unsure about Lively’s choice of Moon Tiger as the title of the book since the beginning. Maybe I will research on the blogosphere and see if there are any othe theories. Thanks so much for redeeming my faith in some of the readers out there

  2. carolwallace says:

    Thanks, Barbara, for your kind words, but more, for your suggesting this splendid novel in the first place. One idea about the Moon Tiger — could it be that the scene in which the Moon Tiger is burning, and the surrounding scenes involving Tom, are really the key bits of Claudia’s life? Not that I think Lively is suggesting that True Love alone was the key to Claudia’s happiness, but maybe that somehow that time with Tom, most especially the way time worked when she was involved with him, was important and irreplaceable?
    Anyway, I loved it.

    • Barbara says:

      I think that Tom and Claudia’s love for Tom were the key bits of her life. And the Moon Tiger? Well, I’ve reread the passage where she describes it so beautifully and I think it is a symbol of life, or maybe more correctly time, burning away. Dropping away into ash. History is such a pervasive theme in Penelope’s work (she and I are on a first-name basis although she has no idea I am her most fervent fan) that I think the Moon Tiger has to be about that in some context.

    • Barbara says:

      Ooops, I was scrolling through your previous posts and see that you already read and reviewed Passing On. That’s how i “met” you, for crying out loud. Ahhh, memory, such a fleeting thing.

  3. Barbara says:

    Carol, when you are ready to dip into another of her books, please give Passing On a try. It is an easy, quick read and I am sure you will fall in love with Helen and Edward as I did. It is a lesser known of her novels but one of my very favorites.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Hah! We’re having a Penelope moment, right here on WordPress! I think you’re right about the Moon Tiger. Lucky P. to find a symbolic self-consuming green spiral with a burning red tip…!

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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