Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively
Synopses are dangerous things. Any synopsis of Moon Tiger would make it sound like an utterly conventional piece of middlebrow fiction. An elderly woman looks back upon her life and remembers the men she loved and the tragedies and triumphs of her life.
That’s accurate as far as it goes. It’s also utterly misleading. Moon Tiger is a novel of fractured narratives, perspectives and tenses. It’s an unsparing look at memory, the construction of narrative, and death. It’s bloody good.
It also won the 1987 Booker Prize. Apparently it was a controversial winner and was derided by critics as “the housewife’s choice” and as “suitable for the Harrods and Hatchard’s market” (the condescension in both those quotes is staggering). My only remark on that is that clearly the housewives of 1987 were a discerning lot. A shame the critics weren’t so perspicacious.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’
The old woman in question is Claudia. She has cancer and she is dying. She knows this. Her history of the world is a personal one and will not be written down. It will not follow chronology. As she later reflects: “Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.” The nurses find her odd, but ultimately just another body to be cared for:
‘Was she someone?’ enquires the nurse. Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor’s shoes crunch. ‘I mean, the things she comes out with…’ And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and… um… been in the Middle East at one time… typhoid, malaria… unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)… yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.
Claudia was someone. She was a war correspondent and a published popular historian. She was beautiful and opinionated and argumentative. She was too close to her brother and not close enough to her daughter. She was glamorous and impossible and arguably not actually a terribly pleasant person.
The narrative moves to her childhood and a memory of competing with her brother to find fossils. It goes forward to her marriage to an urbane half-Russian named Jasper and then back again to her years in Egypt during the second world war. Her history is a kaleidoscope of impressions. Her mind follows connections but not neatly.
All that sounds confusing. It isn’t because it’s well written and because it feels true. True for me anyway. I have no real timeline in my head; just a collage of scenes from my life many of which may not even be accurate. Claudia is not an unreliable narrator, but her memories too may not be wholly accurate.
Claudia knows this and early on vows to show all perspectives. Hers will not be just a history told in her voice, others’ will also be heard. What this means quickly becomes apparent as she remembers that childhood search for fossils I mentioned. The scene is recounted as she recalls it, but then shifts into her brother’s slightly different perception of the same incident:
She must pass Gordon to reach that alluring upper shelf. ‘Mind…’ she says. Move your leg…’
‘Don’t shove,’ he grumbles. ‘Anyway you can’t come here. I said this is my bit, you find your own.’
‘Don’t shove yourself. I don’t want your stupid bit…’
His leg is in her way – it thrashes, she thrusts, and a piece of cliff, of the solid world which evidently is not so solid after all, shifts under her clutching hands… crumbles… and she is falling thwack backwards on her shoulders, her head, her outflung arm, she is skidding rolling thumping downwards. And comes to rest gasping in a thorn bush, hammered by pain, too affronted even to yell.
He can feel her getting closer, encroaching, she is coming here on to his bit, she will take all the best fossils. He protests. He sticks out a foot to impede. Her hot infuriating limbs are mixed up with his.
‘You’re pushing me,’ she shrieks.
‘I’m not,’ he snarls. ‘It’s you that’s shoving. Anyway this is my place so go somewhere else.’
‘It’s not your stupid place,’ she says. ‘It’s anyone’s place. Anyway I don’t…’
And suddenly there are awful tearing noises and thumps and she is gone, sliding and hurtling down, and in horror and satisfaction he stares.
At the time this fracturing of perspective first arose I took that as Claudia’s recollection and her imagining of how her brother might recollect the same incident. Later though this becomes less certain and it appears that Lively may simply be showing how different people remember (or experience) the same event. Memory and history are both untrustworthy. Time and again key moments are shattered in this way. Lively shows two, sometimes three, accounts of the same conversation but each slightly different. The essence is the same, but precisely what was said isn’t.
What makes all this more than a dry exercise in style is partly Claudia herself who is never less than entertaining to be with and partly the scope of the book. Claudia is brilliant and is quite well aware of the fact. She knows that she fascinates and she has nothing but disdain for those who are less glittering. She looks down on her brother’s conventional wife and equally on her own conventional daughter, Lisa. She is easy to picture; sweeping into a room and commanding the attention of all present, but dismissing those she considers uninteresting.
What I could offer Lisa was not the conventional haven of maternal love and concern but my mind and my energy. If she had not acquired these genetically then I was quite prepared to show her how to think and act. I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories – any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant.
She was a disappointment to me. And I, presumably, to her. I looked for my own alter ego, the querying rebellious maverick child I had been myself; Lisa looked for a reassuring clothes-shopping sherry-drinking figure like the mothers of her school friends. As she grew older I felt more and more her silent stare, each time I visited her at Sotleigh, took her over to Beaminster to stay with my mother, or had her in the flat in London for a couple of days. There, she would wander around, a skimpy pallid little figure standing in doorways or perching on a sofa. I bought her books. I took her to museums and art galleries; I tried to encourage opinion and curiosity. Lisa, growing longer of limb and less flexible of mind, became ordinary. She began to bore me. And I sensed her disapproval.
Lively shows the pre-war years in which Claudia grows up and the post-war world in which people jockey for position and prominence. There’s a nice sequence where Claudia’s husband goes to a post-war country house in which various members of the great and good are gathered – a sort of micro Davos. He hopes for a job with Nato or perhaps on television. For those who are the right sort the possibilities are endless.
Where the book truly shines though is in its depiction of the war years in Egypt. It is there that Claudia meets the love of her life; a love that her family and later husband know nothing of. Cairo is filled with parties and amusements. Officers on leave live hard while they can. The few women are in constant demand. The locals are barely involved. It is not their war and the British do not hold them in high regard. Meanwhile in the desert it is chaos and burnt-out shells of tanks. The British are winning, but not without cost.
In places this is a difficult book to read. Egypt is so vivid because that’s where Claudia fell truly in love, but it is no spoiler to reveal that the love did not outlast the war (the opening of the book makes this perfectly clear since we know she marries Jasper whom she only meets later). Claudia is reconstructing what most mattered to her. She is taking fragments of her life and holding them up for examination. Her gaze is unsparing and because of that even though the precise conversations held may be unclear the emotional importance of them is not.
Claudia is like a Pharaonic queen. Her memories are her pyramid; her way of preserving the life of the people she has outlived and of making sense of her own. It has to be a history because her life cannot be understood otherwise. Without the war she would not have been a correspondent. She would not have met the man she loved. Everything is connected and so a history of Claudia must be a history of the universe and of everyone. Nothing else is possible.
This is a book about memory and death. It is not comforting. Noone here speaks of any belief in any afterlife. Claudia’s only expectation as her periods of lucidity grow less frequent is that she will live on briefly in the memories of others, but if the book has shown anything it is that memories are partial and only ever one side of a story too complex to be told. All we ever know is aspects of each other, and even those we love may hold secrets we couldn’t guess at. In the end we all die alone.
Moon Tiger (it’s also available on Kindle, which is how I read it). I discovered Moon Tiger through Sam Jordison’s Guardian Booker Blog. His excellent Moon Tiger review is here. Sam’s Booker blog is generally well worth following so if you do follow that link I’d suggest having a dig around to see the others he’s written up. While writing this I also found that the Guardian Book Club had covered this novel. Here‘s a link to the first of four articles and the other three are linked to from a sidebar to that piece.