Friday, March 07, 2014

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

My Sunday mornings are filled with the dawn sky, a cup of tea, the sounds of birds at the feeders, and The New York Times Book Review.  The first feature in the review I look for is “By the Book” – usually an interview with an author who has a new book or won a prize.  Recently, the column featured Alice Hoffman.  The most interesting question in this series is the interviewees “favorite overlooked or under-appreciated writer.”  Hoffman mentioned Penelope Lively, so I decided to read Moon Tiger, Lively’s 1987 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. 

According to her website, Penelope was born in Cairo, Egypt.  She came to England at the age of twelve and went to boarding school in Sussex.  She subsequently read Modern History at St. Anne's College, Oxford.  Lively now has six grandchildren and lives in London.  She has written 20 novels along with several works of non-fiction and a whole shelf of children’s books.

Moon Tiger is the story of Claudia Hampton, who lies in a bed and passes in and out of consciousness.  She has written historical works and decides she will write a history of the world.  The novel alternates between lucid moments, plans for the history, and remembering her visits to those places.  When doctors, nurses, her daughter, Lisa, or her sister-in-law, Sylvia, stop by for visits, she chats a bit but then falls asleep.  She delineates the chapters of her book, but she always slides toward recalling visits to those places while a correspondent during World War II.  Interestingly enough, these “out-of-consciousness” moments shift between first and third person accounts.  The “History of the World” slowly devolves into a “History of Claudia.”

I found these changes in point of view a bit disconcerting at first, but once I became accustomed to them, the novel carried me along to Egypt.  From that point on, I could hardly put it down. 

Claudia has some disdain for Sylvia.  Lively writes, “She has given little trouble.  She has devoted herself to children and houses.  A nice, old-fashioned girl, Mother called her, at their third meeting, seeing quite correctly through the superficial disguise of pink fingernails, swirling New Look skirts and a cloud of Mitsouko cologne spray.  There was a proper wedding, which Mother loved, with arum lilies, little bridesmaids and a marquee on the lawn of Sylvia’s parents’ home at Farnham.  I declined to be matron of honour and Gordon got rather drunk at the reception.  They spent their honeymoon in Spain and Sylvia settled down to live, as she thought, happily ever after in North Oxford” (23).  I detected a note of jealousy, because Claudia and Gordon were rather close.

Penelope Lively
 So, I have another check mark on my journey through the Man Booker Prize Novels, and I continue to believe this prize represents the best literary fiction.  Alice Hoffman was correct.  Penelope Lively is most definitely underappreciated, and Moon Tiger is a great example of her work.  I have one more of her novels, and then … but you know what I am going to say.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/7/14

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