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.
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?