Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively – Andre Deutsch, 208 pages
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A history of the world, yes. And in the process, my own. The life and times of Claudia H. The bit of the twentieth century to which I’ve been shackled, willy-nilly, like it or not. Let me contemplate myself within my context: everything and nothing. The history of the world as selected by Claudia: fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents. (p. 1)
Moon Tiger is yet another fantastic reading experience I owe to the BBC World Book Club podcast. It’s a book to be savoured, reread, underlined and experienced over and over, revealing something new each time. It is the internal monologue of Claudia Hampton, popular historian, who lies dying in hospital and composes in her head the history of the world – the history of her own life. Central to the story are her relationships: the complex, incestuous ties to her brother Gordon; the emotional distance between Claudia and her daughter Lisa; the unlikely yet lifelong on-and-off romance with entrepreneur Jasper; the strong bond with Hungarian artist Laszlo, who becomes a sort of surrogate son; and finally, the achingly brief love affair with Tom Southern in Cairo during World War II.
Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. (p. 2)
Claudia’s narrative is told from different points of view. The seventy-six year-old woman is just as much of a character in the novel as Claudia’s previous ‘versions’ at different stages in her life. Each ‘Claudia’ and the people she interacts with gets a say in the telling of the story, revealing the ultimate unreliability of the narrator. Gordon’s boring wife Sylvia, Lisa – the rejected daughter, and the frequently bewildered Jasper reveal that Claudia is caustic, stubborn, unyielding, and completely unwilling to adhere to convention. Intelligent, successful, and arrestingly beautiful, she is attractive but not well liked and certainly not fully understood – not that Claudia cares! She is certainly one of the most vivid and memorable heroines I’ve come across in literature, and I couldn’t help but like her.
No one, she thinks, has ever spoken to me like this before. I have never made anyone happy before. I have made people angry, restless, jealous, lecherous ... never, I think, happy. (p. 120)
At the very heart of the novel is Claudia’s biggest secret: her relationship with Tom, an Army captain in the African campaign of World War II. For a few short weeks, they enjoy happiness and peace neither of them had thought possible. Tom tentatively plans for a future together, but Claudia says nothing, and it’s as if she suspects somehow that Tom will eventually go out to the front and not come back. For the second time in her life (the first being wishing her annoying little brother dead), Claudia prays, but there is no answer, and Tom is killed. There is a child but, devastatingly, Claudia miscarries a little boy, which may explain her maternal relationship with wild child Laszlo later in life.
History: it enlarges me, it frees me from the prison of my experience; it also resounds within that experience. (p. 159)
This is no trite romance novel; Claudia recovers, goes on to take many lovers and have a child. She is often seized with a crippling longing for Tom, but never lets on and certainly tells no one the story. She lives the life that is perhaps better suited for her, going on to write wildly successful works of popular history, one of which is made into a film. Obsessively, she researches the mundane concerns of important yet in many ways commonplace individuals that go on to make history. She incenses academics, fires the imagination of the reading public, and fascinates and alienates at the same time. It is surprising, then, that there is no real partner for Claudia except her near-genius brother Gordon.
We confronted each other like mirrors, flinging back reflections in endless recession. We spoke to each other in code. Other people become, for a while, for a couple of contemptuous years, a proletariat. We were an aristocracy of two. (p. 137)
This complicated relationship is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Claudia and Gordon grow up together, challenge each other, share incestuous (or near-incestuous) experiences, and go on to become each other’s closest friends and confidants. They communicate without speaking, excluding everyone else from their conversation, and projecting an aura of an exclusive secret society. This confuses Jasper, saddens Laszlo, and unnerves Sylvia, all of whom feel extraneous and inadequate when Claudia and Gordon are together. There quite simply is no match for Claudia but Gordon; even Tom, from the reader’s perspective, does not seem quite enough for her.
Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. (p. 41)
Well-deserving of the Booker Prize it won in 1987, Moon Tiger is a powerful reading experience. The language captivates and tempts the reader back again and again to savour Claudia’s apt and thought-provoking turns of phrase. The war is described powerfully, believably and without the sentiment that deceptively similar stories such as The English Patient reek of. The characters are vivid and captivating, with the formidable Claudia as mistress of them all. To use a cliché, it’s an absolute must-read.