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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively [Booker prize]

Egypt. Cairo - Giza. General view of pyramids

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.”

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. 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.

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. But then we get 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.

Footnotes

The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe.  A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link. 

The Author: 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.

Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project 

 

 

 

New acquisitions

I had a little indulgence while on my trip to the USA earlier this year and ended up with more new books than I could fit into the suitcase so had to ship some of them home. The US mailing system screwed up somewhere along the line so it took far longer than expected. By the time they arrived late last week I’d forgotten what I’d bought….

First of all three books I bought in a discounted store.

family albumI’ve read only Penelope Lively to date – her Booker winning novel Moon Tiger. It was a stunner so I’ve been on the look out for a few more titles from her. Family Album is her 16th book. As you’d guess from the title, Family Album concerns a family. In this case Alison and Charles who have established a seemingly perfect life in a restored Edwardian mansion. But when their six adult children return to the family home, their visit triggers a set of revelations and the unravelling of long-held secrets.

my revolutions

This was a completely speculative buy since I have never read anything by Kunzru. I bought it on the strength of the synopsis. The central character is Mike Frame who appears to be the kind of dad that doesn’t stick out from the crowds.  But Frame is really Chris Carver, a former member of an underground far left group that, in the 1970s, advocated violent action against the state and protested against the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. Now a mysterious figure from those days has reappeared and wants to dig up Chris’ past.

a-dry-white-season

Last year saw me dip my toe in the waters of South African writing. Those novels proved to be some of the highlights of the year. Andre Brink is one author I’ve been aware of for some time but never got to read so when I saw this buried in a corner of the bookstore at the ridiculously low price of $1 I jumped at it. A Dry White Season  is set in Johannesburg during the time of apartheid. It features Ben du Toit, a white schoolteacher who believes in the essential fairness of the South African government until the sudden arrest and subsequent ‘suicide’ of a black janitor from his school. His quest for the truth draws him into a world of lies and corruption which then engulf his own family. Sounds terrific doesn’t it? The New York Times certainly thought so, making it a notable book of the year when it was published in 1979.

breakfast at tiffanysAnd finally, a book that I know only as a film and wouldn’t have thought about reading except for a discussion on the The Readers podcast which gave me the clue that the text of Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be far superior to the film. It’s only now looking at the book after a gap of more than 2 months that I realise this is really more of a short story at 87 pages long.

Hello again

I’m back home in the comfort of my own bed after three weeks on the other side of the Atlantic. I’d thought I would have plenty of time while away to catch up on all the blogs I follow as well as make a dent in my review backlog. It was not to be.

By the time I got back to my hotel at the end of the day all I felt capable of doing was watching series one of Call the Midwife and some rather uninspiring episodes of Poirot with David Suchet in the lead role. I didn’t even read as much as I expected: Richard Flanagan’s Booker winning A Narrow Road to the Deep North (superb); Denis Thierault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (quirky) and half of The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s epic of Australian nurses in World War One.

Despite the feelings of exhaustion I did it seem have enough reserves of energy to go book shopping. In an outlet store I picked up three bargains –  all works by Penelope Lively to add to my collection (don’t ask me what they were because I forgot to note them before I shipped them back home). On a second expedition I bought André Brink’s classic novel, A Dry White Season, which is a hard hitting book about racial intolerance  and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve seen the film adaptation a few times but only recently heard a podcast discussion which suggested the book has more of an edge than the movie.

I’d thought to buy a lot more but the price of books appears to have shot up in America in recent years. It seemed ridiculous to pay sixteen dollars (minus tax) for a fairly slim paperback that I could get for around three quarters of that price back home. Anyone know why the American editions are so much more expensive?

So now I’m back and having caught up on some sleep am ready to catch up on the hundreds of blog posts I missed… Stand by for lots of commenting.

Sunday Salon Catch Up

sundaysalonA wonderful surprise awaited me on my return from an intense working week in snow-clad Eastern USA — a signed copy of Christos Tsiolkas’s newest novel Barracuda which I won via National Book Tokens. I never got around to reading his best seller The Slap but this latest novel is apparently equally provocative in the way it questions what it means to be Australian.

But first I have to finish two other novels: Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger which won the 1987 Booker Prize and New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani.   By complete coincidence they both deal with memory and are partly set in World War 2. The first is a brilliantly constructed novel in which a secret love affair is revealed by an old woman as she lies dying in a hospital bed. The second is a novel I started reading on the flight home. It’s a curious story about a man found beaten up at a dockside in Trieste – he can’t remember anything about his life, not even his name. The Finnish doctor who treats him thinks he must be Finnish (purely on the basis of a name found inside his jacket) and sets about trying to teach him that language in the hope it will rekindle his memory.

These two are such a contrast to the novel that sustained me through the long flight out and the wintry nights that followed. Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir has been sitting on my book shelf for at least four years — quite why I delayed reading it for so long, I’m not sure since I’ve loved every other novel I’ve read by him and Germinal is one of my all-time favourites.  Maybe I was afraid L’Assommoir wouldn’t be as good but fortunately it’s turned out to be equally as riveting.

So in all February has been a good month. I’ll keep my fingers and toes crossed that March turns out the same. I’ll be reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which is the book I landed up with after the Classics Club spin and probably something from my World Literature list but I haven’t decided what that will be yet. Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas are both calling for my attention. I suspect it will depend what mood I’m in at the point when I’m ready to begin a new book. 

 

 

 

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