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Monday, 19 December 2011

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Claudia Hampton is dying. And she's writing the history of the world. With Claudia at the centre of it, of course. Claudia: intelligent, independent, irascible, argumentative, sometimes cruel, not massively likeable and yet very human, very vibrant, very determined, very herself, the cornerstone of this short, but rich novel. As she lies in the hospital, awaiting death from cancer, she digs deep into her memory, writing the history of her world starting with her primordial roots - competitive fossil hunting as a child with her brother Gordon - to the very present - her current condition, her impending death.

Claudia, writer of historical novels, breaks the rules of linear narrative and the story shifts where her memory takes her. Sometimes back to her early life, her times growing up with Gordon the brother that was her greatest ally and stiffest competitor. Her lover, and almost the love of her life. Then later, to her difficult relationship with her daughter Lisa, the gulf of misunderstanding between them, of failed expectations on both sides. Then to Egypt, the war, and Claudia's great love: Tom Southern. A brief, but intense relationship that ends when Southern is killed in action, an event from which Claudia never truly recovers.

Claudia is truly the centrepiece of this novel. She presents something of an unsympathetic character. Her certainty, her self-assurance, her razor-sharp intelligence and uncompromising nature rise to the fore in all of her relationships with the exception, perhaps, in her relationship with Tom which elicits the only softening in her otherwise diamond-hard character. And yet there is something likable in Claudia, admirable perhaps. Her uncompromising nature in the time period in which she lives is something groundbreaking. She is true to herself at the expense of (almost) everybody else, and yet her relationships are solid and true, they are lasting. Claudia brings her own brand of honesty to each relationship, and a sharp humour which lightens what could otherwise be a difficult character to like.

Then there are the moments in which the same event is viewed from the perspective of not just Claudia but other characters. Lively interjects the alternative view of this history of Claudia's world alongside Claudia's own perception of the event, giving the reader a very different perspective. This technique works most effectively when addressing the relationship between Claudia and her daughter Lisa, both of which are strong in their own rights yet neither of which quite recognises it in the other. A relationship submersed in disappointment. 

Claudia approaching the end begins to seek some kind of reconciliation. She apologises to her daughter, roughly, for being the kind of mother she was. She reads Tom Southern's journal, which had been sent to her by his sister after she'd figured out who the mysterious 'C' in the journal was and which had sat, dusty, on the shelf, unread for some time. Just before her death Claudia reflects on what could have been, on who she might have become had Tom lived, and how she has become something unrecognisable from the person he had loved.

Moon Tiger is an excellent novel, a deserving winner of the 1987 Booker Prize. Where Lively works most successfully is in drawing the story around such a vibrant, well imagined character. Claudia leaps off the page, uncompromising from the start, and whilst this may put some readers off (Claudia is not massively likeable, but in the end it is hard not to admire her) with some small perseverance it is well worth the effort. A richly imagined novel, vibrant as the colours of Egypt, as uncompromising as nature. I was left with only one doubt at the end of it: what is a Moon Tiger anyway? I still don't know. Any ideas would be much appreciated.

Moon Tiger gets a roaring 9 out of 10 Biis. Highly recommended.