29 March 2019

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger has been languishing on my shelves since 2011 when I brought it home from a vacation in London.  It won the Man Booker prize in 1987, and was mentioned with glowing accolades on a books podcasts I listened to a few weeks ago.  It was time to blow the dust off, so to speak.

The story begins with Claudia Hampton being propped up in her hospital bed by a nurse.  As an elderly woman, she is talked to in those terms meant to be endearing such as 'good girl' and 'dear' but Claudia is far from feeble in mind or spirit.  She is writing the history of her life while dying of cancer.

'Was she someone?' enquires the nurse.  Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor's shoes crunch.  'I mean, the things she comes out with...'  And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she's written books and newspaper articles and...um...been in the Middle East at one time....typhoid,malaria....unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)....yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably. 

From childhood, Claudia has been in competition with her brother, Gordon.  Their relationship will always be one of fire and ice.  With only one year separating them in age, Gordon relishes his superiority over his little sister.  And as time moves on it appears it's a trait he encourages with almost everyone close to him.  Claudia's family life is much like that of other children in her sphere who were born in 1910.  Her mother left a career opportunity in History to be a housewife, her father died on the Somme...picked off by history.

Claudia writes about the child she had with Jaspar.  A good-looking man who was a blend of Russian aristocracy and English gentry.  She laments that poor Lisa is a pasty child that resembles neither of her parents and leaves her upbringing to both grandmothers.  The disconnect between mother and child is so great that Lisa instinctively knows her mother would prefer to be called by her name rather than 'Mummy'.  Claudia and Jasper spend the ten years of their relationship in an on/off situation that satisfies neither party. 

For most of WWII, Claudia is a press correspondent for a weekly paper.  Tagging along with a tank battalion, she meets Tom Southern who becomes the man she will finally drop her guard for.  The desert scenes are vividly described....the flies, sand everywhere, and maggot-riddled bodies of those unfortunates who came upon landmines.  Through assignments and assignations the couple begin to make plans for a life together after the war.  A letter puts an end to all of it.

I was full of admiration for Claudia's drive and ambition while earning her living in a war zone.  I enjoyed reading the sections in which Claudia typed out stories for the paper while the desert sands blew.  I learned that you can make a campfire by pouring petrol in a can filled with sand.  The problem for me was that the vignettes back and forth through time and events didn't allow me to sink into anything for very long.   By the halfway point of the book it was a case of being happy while reading the story, but not missing it while off doing something else.  Perhaps a portend because I felt slightly let down to discover the intriguing title of the book comes from a brand of mosquito coil!  High expectations that didn't quite hit the mark.

Hundreds of readers do not agree with my overall feelings about Moon Tiger, but there are a few who were left as I was, a bit cold.  Yes, this is a well-written, clever book that is mature and artful, but does any of that matter if you're mulling dinner plans while reading about the last moments of a woman's life?  Perhaps I'll read this book again in the future and feel differently but for the time being I will recommend Consequences as my favourite Penelope Lively novel.

Blue Egyptian Water Lily by Peter Charles Henderson 
(1804)

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