Friday, June 26, 2009

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, 2005, c1987.
207 p.

Another book by Lively; I was so struck by Consequences that I had to read another of hers right away. Fortunately my library has a number of her titles, so I picked up this one, the book for which she won the Booker Prize in 1987. I thought it was wonderful. I am starting to get the impression that Lively is very interested in the interplay of women's lives, memory, and history.

This novel takes a form that I am quite fond of, that of old women looking back on their life from the end of it. Claudia Hampton is in hospital, recalling her past as she nears her death. She was a journalist during World War II and spent much of her professional life as a journalist and writer of popular history, and her fascination with language and history permeates the book. The narrative jumps around in time, following Claudia's thought processes, but is not confusing. As people come to see her their appearance in her hospital room prompts recollections as to their role in her life. She is a cantakerous and blunt woman, not fond of too many people, but it is repeatedly remarked upon how beautiful and attention grabbing she was in her prime. (Remember that she is telling her own story!) Players in the story include brother Gordon, with whom she has a very close relationship indeed; his bland and ordinary wife Sylvia to whom Claudia is casually cruel; daughter Lisa, pale in comparison to her fiery mother, and left to her grandmothers to raise (Claudia does not have a strong maternal instinct); Jasper, Lisa's father and Claudia's sometime lover; Laszlo, a Hungarian student refugee who she shelters for a while; and Tom, her one, brief true love.

Claudia is a vibrant, uncompromising woman who doesn't allow herself to be limited to the accepted behaviours for women in her peer group. While working as a war correspondent in Egypt in WWII, she talks her way into advancing with some male journalists to the front, and there meets Tom, a steady kind of man, an officer and a calming influence on her. Of course, we know as soon as we meet him that he will not be around for long, but his loss alters Claudia's entire life. It is the emotional centre of the story, affecting her responses to life afterward. Following the war, she works at a newspaper in England and then begins to write her histories. Repeatedly referring to history as 'kaleidoscopic', her manner of telling her own story reflects that judgement; bits of this and that combine to finally come together in some kind of pattern, in hindsight. She comes out with ideas about the permanence of language and the impermanence of the historical record:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum of words inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes — our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version suface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.

But she also talks a lot about the characters she meets. Her relationships are important to her, despite her bravado and claim that she is wholly independent. First with the loss of Tom, then late in life, Gordon's death, she remarks that she is less a person without them.

One thing I discovered about Penelope Lively when reading her children's books, years ago, is her excellent control of atmosphere. There is both a lot of description, using all the senses, and an evocation of mood that I find characteristic of all her books which I've read. The final pages of Moon Tiger are exquisite, carefully drawn and very moving. Here's a paragraph from a point when her brother Gordon is near the end of his illness; he, Claudia and Sylvia are driving home from a government function he insisted upon attending.
It is a grey winter afternoon, glittering with car lights, street lights, gold, red, emerald, the black rainy pavements gleaming, the shop windows glowing Wagnerian caverns. Gordon, talking, sees and takes note of all this. He talks of events that have not yet come about and sees light and texture, the kaleidoscope of fruit outside a greengrocer, the mist of rain on a girl's cheek. A newspaper kiosk is a portrait gallery of pop stars and royalty; the traffic glides like shoals of shining fish. And all this will go on, he thinks. And on, and on.
A note about the title -- I had no idea what the reference was, until I got to the middle of the book, Claudia's time in Egypt with Tom. A Moon Tiger is one of those green mosquito coils that we used to burn when camping; here it is a perfect metaphor for memory and Claudia's narrative of the past. The Moon Tiger burns beside the bed while she and Tom make love and spend hours talking about their lives, both past and possible future. When they finally drift off, "the Moon Tiger is almost entirely burned away now; its green spiral is mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer." This image suggests to me that through the historical lens, the green and living experience of the past is turned into a pale imitation of itself in the retelling. Or perhaps it is suggesting that the possibilities of a happier life for Claudia had been burned away in Egypt with Tom's death. I am sure many more interpretations could be added.

I was fascinated by this book, both by the character of Claudia and the structure of the story. Claudia is unapologetically herself, not trying to win over the reader; it is nice to see a female character who is not entirely 'likeable'. Interesting, intense and sometimes irritating, Claudia is the heart of this book and carries it off with panache. To succeed with a story which is anchored to one character, that character needs to be strong, and here Claudia is definitely a powerful creation able to hold the focus on herself. I am not at all surprised that this won the Booker. Recommended, especially if you already have an interest in the vagaries of history and storytelling.

Eva said...
I loved Moon Tiger when I read it back in high school. I've always meant to read more Lively. Which did you enjoy more, Moon Tiger or Consequences?

I enjoyed Consequences when I read it; that's what made me want to continue reading her work. However, I've found that Moon Tiger has stuck with me more, and that I have really been reflecting on both the issues that Claudia brings up and the style in which Moon Tiger was written.

Dorothy W. said...
I would love to hear how Moon Tiger and Consequences compare. Thanks for linking to my review of Moon Tiger! I'm curious if Consequences is as good.

BooksPlease said...
I've read Consequences and loved it. How does it compare with Moon Tiger, which I haven't read?

It's similar; they are both about a family of women, and the sweep of history over the 20th century and how it affected very particular individuals. The style of Moon Tiger is less straightforward than Consequences, in that it does not move chronologically, as well as slipping in and out of first person and third person narrative (quite effectively). And with Consequences, we are following quite a number of people through generations; Moon Tiger is all about Claudia! But they were both great reads.

Other Views:
Dorothy at Of Books & Bicycles discusses some themes

Kaizeren at the Bookish Dark gives it a deep reading


  1. Great review! It's funny that we all pretty much had the same question. :D Claudia's definitely stuck with me all these years.

  2. Very nice review! I love that quotation about language and how we are all walking lexicons. I'm glad to hear that Consequences is as good as Moon Tiger -- I probably will like it!

  3. Still yet to read anything by Lively. This one sounds like the one I should start with. I love everything about your description.

  4. I remember when Dorothy wrote about this and I immediately decided I needed to read it. Now, months later (how long ago was it she wrote about it?) I have still not gotten to it, though I have added Consequences to my pile. Must pull it out to read as it sounds really good all over again!

  5. Eva - yes, most questioners were fans of Moon Tiger! Me too.

    Dorothy - isn't that quote fantastic? I am finding Lively very quotable.

    Lisa - It would be a good place to start; I've liked it the best of the Lively's I've read so far.

    Danielle - oh, I think you would really appreciate this one. Dorothy's review got me thinking about it and then reading Consequences convinced me I had to read more Lively.

  6. Just now reading Moon Tiger and googled to find out the definition. Love your review and will now light my mosquito coil as I am vacationing in the FWI and would like to avoid dengue!

  7. mountainmornings - thanks so much for commenting! love it when posts are helpful even two years after posting :) Hope you really enjoy Moon Tiger -- I still remember it very well. Your blog is great, by the way - thanks for leaving a comment so I could explore your words as well!


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