Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The famous historian Claudia Hampton is dying. From her hospital bed she tells the nurse that she is going to write a history of the world: “A history of the world…and in the process, my own”.

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987 and yet it’s not a book that I’ve ever heard much about. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know anything about it, as I would otherwise probably have felt too intimidated by the thought of reading it and might never have picked it up. And that would have been a shame because although it was certainly a complex, challenging book, it was also one that I found very rewarding and I didn’t regret the time and effort I put into reading it.

I really wanted to love Moon Tiger. And I did love parts of it. The whole book is beautifully written (I particularly liked the final chapter) and I found myself constantly marking passages I wanted to remember. The only problem I had was that the story was too fragmented for me. The narration jumps from third person past tense to first person past tense to third person present tense – as well as back and forth in time. Eventually I began to really appreciate how well-structured the story actually was, but unfortunately it didn’t start to work for me until I was halfway through the novel.

As Claudia explains at the beginning of the book she is taking a ‘kaleidoscopic’ view of history. One idea leads to another with only very tenuous connections between them. The most tiny and innocent things that happen in the hospital (a conversation with the nurse about God, a poinsettia plant brought in by her sister-in-law) trigger memories which lead to other memories and then other memories…

Sometimes the narrator also changes very abruptly, so that we see the same scene from two different perspectives. This made things even more confusing, but did help build up a full, balanced picture of Claudia. And Claudia is not the most likeable of people. I loved her as a character – she’s fascinating and unconventional – but not as a person. At first I couldn’t understand her animosity towards her sister-in-law, Sylvia, and I was frustrated that she wasn’t more loving to her daughter, Lisa. The reasons for her behaviour are revealed only very slowly as the story progresses and the secrets of Claudia’s past come to light. This gave the novel some suspense and mystery, as not everything was obvious from the beginning and a lot of things didn’t fall into place until near the very end. I still couldn’t actually like Claudia, but at least I could understand her better.

I did like the way Claudia talked about history and how she was able to relate historical events to events from her own past. To Claudia, history is a personal subject – she writes her history books for the general public, in language that they can understand. And just as it would be difficult to write a history of the entire world in strictly chronological order, the story Penelope Lively tells in Moon Tiger is not chronological either.

Where the book really comes into its own is in Claudia’s recollections of Egypt when she was working in Cairo as a war correspondent during World War II. The descriptions of Egypt are vivid and realistic, the type that could only be written by someone familiar with the country (as Penelope Lively was). It’s in these sections that we begin to see a softer side of Claudia – and in case you were wondering, this is also when we finally learn what a Moon Tiger is!

I still find it hard to say what I thought about this book. I was impressed by it, but did I actually enjoy it? No, not really – but it was certainly one of the most interesting and unusual books I’ve read this year.

9 thoughts on “Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

  1. Jessica says:

    I read book like this all the time, I’m very glad I read them but can’t say I really enjoyed the actual reading experience. I find more challenging book are like this. I haven’t heard much about this book but it sounds interesting and from what you have said I can see why it won the Booker.

  2. Annie says:

    I remember reading this when it first came out and enjoying it at the time, but you’ve made me wonder if I would still like it now. I must go back and have a second look.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think this is one that I’ll want to re-read, but I’d like to try another of Lively’s books sometime. I hope you still like it if you decide to have a second look!

  3. Thomas at My Porch says:

    I had a very similar exerience with this book. Although there were things about it that I quite liked, it left me kind of ambivalent. I appreciated the thoughts of the dying Claudia, but the relationship with the brother was a little creepy.

    • Helen says:

      Ambivalent is exactly the way I felt about this book. I enjoyed parts of it, but not others. The relationship between Claudia and Gordon was definitely a bit uncomfortable to read about.

  4. Liz says:

    I read this book 19 years ago and loved it. I re-read it last year and found it just as readable and well-written. Claudia was a complex character who perhaps wasn’t a conventional woman, especially during the period in which the book was set, but was, nevertheless, likeable. I understand that reading, like most things, is a personal thing, subjective and individual, however I cannot imagine being ambivalent about this book.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved it, Liz. I really wish I could have loved it too, but I obviously just wasn’t the right type of reader for this book. I personally found it difficult to like Claudia, though I did think she was a very strong and memorable character.

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