Book ReviewsBritish authorsMan Booker Prize

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Nature of Memory

In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK.  

As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history.

The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story.

Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative  nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”

Memories As Fragments

This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative.

Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator.

Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.

Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.

Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.

Penelope Lively’s Unlikeable Protagonist

Lively takes two risks with this novel.

First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like.  

Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people.

The second risk is Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward.  It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned.

But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).

It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts.

 I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Fast Facts

Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994. She won the prize in 1987.

Moon Tiger was published by Andre Deutsch in 1987 and won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe.  I read this as part of my Booker Prize project 

A recording of Penelope Lively discussing Moon Tiger is available from the BBC World Book Club. 


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

26 thoughts on “Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Nature of Memory

  • Pingback: Revisiting The TBR Book Jar Experiment : BookerTalk

  • Pingback: Family Album by Penelope Lively — chinks in the idyll : BookerTalk

  • Pingback: #AtoZofBooks: Some favourites from the past : BookerTalk

  • Pingback: #AtoZofBooks: Some favourites from the past | BookerTalk

  • buriedinprint

    I always enjoy her books: I just find her take of the world is interesting. As has been mentioned here, The Photograph is especially accessible and satisfying, and relatively recent, but I like her earlier novels too (the same themes do seem to resurface, which some might find repetitive, but I like them, so I enjoy the phenomenon). It’s interesting that you mention that you find that Claudia plays second fiddle to the male characters in this novel and while I do agree in some senses, I also never felt as though it was their story in the end, only that she had remarked upon how influential these relationships were and that they shaped her fundamentally but she was still Claudia-through-and-through, as she had been from the beginning. Maybe she isn’t always likeable, but I found her ever-so believable and sympathetic…

    • When I’ve come out from my self imposed restraint on buying new books i’ll make a purchase of The Photograph a priority!

  • Ive not read much by her either but on the strength of Moon Tiger I picked up a few more of her books in a discount store on my last trip to the USA. I do think you’d appreciate Moon Tiger Rebecca

  • This sounds wonderful; just my kind of book. I’ve not read any of Lively’s fiction, though I did read her fairly recent memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish. In a way it sounds like this novel’s old age theme paved the way for her autobiographical thoughts on the same subject. I actually think I have a copy of Moon Tiger — but in a box in America. I’ll have to dig it out next time I’m there.

  • There’s a review of this at mine, but in short I loved it. I loved the structure of it, the fractured nature of the narrative, and the spikiness of the central character. The things you bring out here in other words. It’s a very good book.

  • I’m sure I read this years and years ago, but have no memory of it! Which Iris Murdoch was it up against?

    • it was The Book and the Brotherhood – not one that I’ve heard of really

      • Ooh that’s a favourite of mine, it’s BRILLIANT!

  • i loved this one! Both as an historian and as age and collect my own memories. It inspired me to read some of her others–some of which charmed me and others left me cold.

    • Ive heard a few other people say that her work can be hit and miss. anything you read by her that you thought really good. I had one person recommend The Photograph

  • Great review, Karen. You might like The Photograph which is also about reconstructing the past but in a very different way.

    • I just did a quick look at my collection but don’t have that particular one. Shall have to add to the wishlist – thanks for the recommendation Susan

  • A very interesting review. I have a feeling that I read this novel many years ago when it came out in paperback. My memories are very hazy now so maybe it’s one to revisit at some point.

  • This book won the Booker when I was on maternity leave with my daughter so it remains vivid in my memory – for two reasons. One is that I loved the book. I think it has one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve read. I’ve never forgotten it. Secondly is that it was quite a controversial Booker win. I think it was seen as “too accessible” for a Booker. At least, that was the sense I got from the discussions though maybe my memory has played tricks on me. However, these two memories – the ending and the Booker controversy are imprinted on my memory, and there they’ll stay! It’s a book I’d happily read again.

  • I loved this when I read it years ago – before even I kept a reading journal! I went to read heaps of other books by Penelope Lively. She’s one of my favourite British authors.
    (It took me ages to find an affordable first edition for my collection!)

  • Great review! I’ve read more of Lively’s children’s books than her adult ones, for some reason, though I do have a copy of this somewhere. I should no doubt pay her more attention!

  • It sounds like you are making great progress on your Booker project! I just reviewed last year’s winner, bringing me back up to date on the Booker list. Would you be interested in doing a joint post re: standouts from among the Booker Winners?

    • Hi Joslyn, you’ve piqued my interest with that question and its very timely also because I started to think today about a post on ‘the best and worst of the bookers’. I’ll send you an email so we can chat about your idea ….


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.