Thursday, July 31, 2014

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

" 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."

Claudia Hampton - the once beautiful and independent journalist and historian - is dying. Although barely able to communicate with her caregivers and visitors inside her head she is ' a myriad of Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on the water.'

She recalls her life in a non-linear narrative from a post WWI childhood, a career in journalism that would take her to Eygpt during WWI and an author of history books. Her thoughts flit here and there but what prevents this from becoming tiresome is having the other person ( sometimes more than one) also give their perspective of the event she is talking about. It's a clever structure and once I got used to it I loved it. 
In this way we meet Gordon, the beloved brother and his slightly dull wife, Sylvia - Lisa, the neglected daughter and her father, Jaspar, the lover.
I didn't like Claudia - I could admire her independence and courage and I could feel sorry for her at times but disliked her selfishness , her snide thoughts about others and her terrible attitude towards her daughter. Although I have to say I probably would have loved her when I was younger!

There are some wonderful descriptive passages ..
I saw the cluttered intense life of the fields and villages -a world of dust and water, straw and leaves, people and animals - and I saw the stark textural immensity of the desert, the sand carved by the wind, the glistening mirages. It had the delicacy of a watercolour - all soft grey-greens and pale blues and fawns and bright browns. Beautiful and indifferent; when you began to see it you saw also the sores around the mouths of children, the flies crawling on the sightless eyes of a baby, the bare ulcerated flesh on a donkey's back."
....particularly of Egypt. Claudia travels there as a war journalist and during a foray into the desert meets a young soldier, Tom, her one great love, and this time is the pivot around which her life, her memories revolve.

Moon Tiger deals with several themes including end of life issues, the realisation of how fleeting our time here is , what is left of us when we're gone? 
" Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock."
It's a very quotable book. If there is one reason why I can say I loved Moon Tiger it is the writing, the skill with which Penelope Lively weaves ideas and words into magical prose. Brilliant!

A Century of Books (1987)


  1. This has been on my "to read" list for years... sounds excellent!

    1. The writing was excellent but I couldn't care much about the characters.

  2. This was not a favorite when I first read it years ago, mainly because of Claudia. I should re-read it, though, and see if I still feel the same way.

    1. I think you would - I didn't like Claudia at all and I never felt any emotional connection to her or anyone else. She does have a wonderful way with words though.