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13th September
written by Steph

Moon Tiger won the 1987 Man Booker prize, and yet I feel like it’s a book that few people know about or think to read. That’s a real shame, because there’s a lot to like about this powerful and thoughtful novel. Provided you aren’t one who is put off by narratives that are largely reflective in nature and spend a good deal of time musing about society, history, the general nature of life (and one’s position in it), love, family, and evolution within one’s lifetime. It’s a novel of ideas and one I found very provocative and also rather mesmerizing… but those looking for lots of action and linear plot structures should certainly look elsewhere. Moon Tiger is a novel based around a dying woman’s recollections of her life. As Claudia Hampton lays dying in a hospital bed in London, she drifts in and out of consciousness and memory, dwelling on her past and how it has informed her present, determined to write a history of the world in which she is the central character. Having spent much of her life as a “popular historian” of sorts, this final endeavor is second-nature to Claudia, and as she attempts to frame the events of her own life, we are given a vivid peek into the life of a brash and determined woman as she struggles with the ever-shifting sands of the world. One of the things that struck me most about this novel was the unconventional narrative. I’ve read many novels that jump back and forth in time, but this one may have used the device to the greatest effect. One of the central issues of the novel is the elusiveness of memory, the way it can blend almost seamlessly with the present, the two entwining until the concept of “time” is almost meaningless. One of Claudia’s tenants is that memories can be co-activated in concert, so that it is natural for one memory to flow into another, even if they don't technically link chronologically; the bonds that tie memories to each other are based on something deeper than time. It was interesting to move around on Claudia’s timeline on the basis of concepts and ideas, rather than through a strict linear progression. Intellectually the form of the novel could be rather challenging as it forced me to juggle many bits of information, sometimes keeping many notions aloft simultaneously, hoping that I’d be able to catch them all on their descent and union. I think the structure imbued the narrative with added excitement, as Claudia’s life felt a bit like a mystery as different elements of her life made sense as bits were revealed at different times. Something from her childhood might only lock into place near the end of the novel, while elements of her adult life are made clear earlier in the novel, and this constant guessing game of what would be revealed when made for an interesting reading experience. Another thing I found particularly interesting was the fact that Lively played with time while also playing with perspective. It was not unusual for the narrator to switch between paragraphs, returning me to partway through a scene I had just completed only to revisit it from a completely different perspective. As you can imagine, this could be quite jarring, as sometimes there was some confusion as to whose eyes I was seeing the scene through once again, but I also found the technique rather invigorating as well. I thought it was actually a very interesting means of adding another layer to the story, and it was very rewarding to see how all of the different perspectives united to form a larger, more in-depth picture of each of the characters then would have been available had I only been privy to a single character’s thoughts. It sort of paid credence to the old idea that sometimes it is only through the eyes of others that we can see ourselves clearly for who we truly are. One of the pivotal elements in the novel revolves around Claudia’s time in Cairo and her love affair with an English soldier during WWII. These parts of the novel really managed to tap into the personal side of war, and there is a good deal of discussion in the novel about how when wars are distilled into rudimentary facts and figures, we think we know what’s happened in these little summaries, but in fact they barely scratch the surface and maybe even overlook the heart of the matter. A nice furthering of this idea was Claudia’s profession as historian for the general public, making history accessible and relatable, even though other “serious historians” often scorn her work for its perceived lack of rigor. And of course there is then the overall conceit of the novel in which Claudia is molding the history of the world with respect to her own life, making it personal, making it relevant. I also liked how it tapped into this idea that sometimes fiction can be more real than history because fiction has a different kind of permanence – while people and events fade, words make things concrete, and again fiction has that potential to tap into the core of an event, reminding of its importance if not its actual details. Perhaps one of the most shocking things I enjoyed about this book was the narrator itself, Claudia. I could see how many people might find her offputting, but I actually really enjoyed how salty and brash she was. She was tough and tart, which I think caused many of the people in her life (but for a select few) to misunderstand her, to conflate her “tough love” veneer with “no love”. I thought she was a fascinating, full-bodied female character, and I really enjoyed how unconventional she was. For me this novel felt very bold and cunning, and was a perfect example of how “women’s fiction” can be high-quality, intelligent, tricky fiction. I always enjoy a book that defies conventions, and I feel this novel really managed to flout so many traditional notions, specifically those about narrative structure and winning women protagonists, with great brio. All in all, I thought Moon Tiger was a very powerful rumination on love, loss, life and what it is to be a woman who refuses to bow to custom but instead blazes one’s own trail. It has its icky moments, parts that certainly made me uncomfortable, but I felt it was ultimately an ambitious novel that is very successful. I highly recommend it for anyone who looks for something a little different, a little demanding, in their fiction. In particular, I recommend it for anyone who craves heroines who are difficult and anything but run-of-the-mill. It’s not a novel that will be to everyone’s tastes, but I for one found it rather exhilarating, and very rewarding. Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. 09/13/2010

    Your review makes me think of the book in a different light. I think I like Moon Tiger better now that I have read your review. And I think I know which parts you found “icky”. Me too.

  2. 09/13/2010

    I know I’ve heard of this before, but never really paid much attention to it or thought I should read it. I’m thinking differently now, as this looks like just the type of book I *would* like to put that extra effort into. I especially like that she looks at her own life as a pop historian would – sounds like the perfect perspective for me.

  3. 09/13/2010

    I think this sounds like an incredibly complex read, but also on that would be worth the effort. I like that it’s a bit nonlinear and that it shifts point of view as well. I had never really heard of this book until now, but I loved your review and think that this is a book that I would find really enriching and rewarding. I do admit to being a little intimidated by it as well, but I don’t think I will let that stop me 🙂

    Wonderful review, Steph!

  4. “those looking for lots of action and linear plot structures should certainly look elsewhere.” Oh dear! Doesn’t sound as though it is for me. I’ll get to it at some point, but I’m not that excited at the moment.

  5. 09/13/2010

    Penelope Lively is one of the many authors I plan to read… someday. I’ve checked Consequences out of the library at least one and I’ve purchased a copy of The Photograph, which I hear is quite good. Whenever I see a review of one of her books, I want to get to her even more!

  6. 09/14/2010

    I am not familiar with this book at all, sadly. It sounds very powerful though and I absolutely love the cover.

  7. 09/14/2010

    @ Thomas: I’m glad to hear my review made you think about this book in a different light – it’s always gratifying to hear that!
    @ Meghan: I actually didn’t know much about this book before I dove into it, but I’m really glad I did. And I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to pick it up!
    @ zibilee: One thing I maybe should have mentioned is that even though this is a rather complex novel it’s actually quite short so it’s not something you toil over for weeks. It’s less that 300 pages, so even if you do struggle, it won’t be for long! 😀
    @ Jackie: Ha! I admit I was thinking of you as I wrote those lines. I know you plan to read all the Booker winners… I don’t think this will be one of your favorites!
    @ Teresa: I would love love LOVE to hear your thoughts on this book. I think it’s one you’d take a lot from, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lively became a new favorite author for you!
    @ Stephanie: Yes, the cover is quite gorgeous, isn’t it? Quite a feat given that it was published in the ’80s!

  8. Eva

    I read this summer before senior year of high school and absolutely, whole-heartedly ADORED it. It’s still on my shelves, but I’ve been almost afraid to reread it in case 24-year-old Eva doesn’t agree with 16-year-old Eva. So I’m happy you reviewed it, and that you liked it so much: now I definitely want to reread it!

  9. Lovely review. I read this pre-blogging and found it original and rewarding. I agree with your point about “women’s fiction” being capable of offering something different with difficult heroines.

  10. 09/15/2010

    @ Eva: Oh, I’m so glad you’ve read this one! I actually thought about you a lot while reading this book, thinking it was just the kind of novel you would enjoy. I think you should definitely give it a re-read; I doubt 24-year-old Eva would dislike it!
    @ Claire: I’m gratified to see that there are some bloggers out there who have read and enjoyed this one! And I thought that with the recent discussion of whether women’s fiction is by its very nature fluffy that this was a nice counterargument to those who might say that is the case. This is anything but dreamy whip topping!

  11. 09/16/2010

    So glad you reviewed this book because I really didn’t know about it and have yet to read anything by Penelope Lively. Sounds like something I might really enjoy, I love difficult heroines (e.g. complex female characters), non-linear narrative structures and novels that explore memory!

  12. Eva

    Yep! We had to read at least one Booker Prize winner over the summer for English AP, and of course I ended up reading like 6, but this was my favourite. 🙂 Perhaps I’ll reread it during my move!

  13. 09/17/2010

    This sounds like a novel I’d like. I’ve been meaning to try Penelope Lively for a while…

  14. 09/17/2010

    @ Bina: I like all the things you mentioned too, which is probably why I appreciated this novel so much. I hope you do get to give it a shot; Penelope Lively is certainly an author worth exploring!
    @ Eva: Yes, while you’re in transit might be the perfect time to read it since you won’t have access to your library books! 😉 I think enough time has also passed that you might see different things in it this time too!
    @ verbivore: Oh Penelope Lively is an author I think you’d really enjoy! She might be just the thing for one of your extended reading projects… She’s certainly published enough! 😉

  15. 09/17/2010

    I read this one a while back and really enjoyed it. Good review! I also really liked her book The Photograph.

  16. 09/19/2010

    @ Dorothy W.: I have seen The Photograph at the used bookstore but decided I should probably read this one before I bought any more. Needless to say, I’ll certainly be picking up more Lively in the future!

  17. JoV

    ” and as she attempts to frame the events of her own life, we are given a vivid peek into the life of a brash and determined woman as she struggles with the ever-shifting sands of the world.”

    Steph, Steph, Steph… you are a true pro when it comes to literary review. I don’t know how I would have missed this review of yours, but it goes to show Lively wasn’t on my radar and her books didn’t draw my attention that she deserves.

    Absolutely, superbly brilliant review! Professionally done. 🙂

  18. […] Steph & Tony Investigate!: All in all, I thought Moon Tiger was a very powerful rumination on love, loss, life and what it is to be a woman who refuses to bow to custom but instead blazes one’s own trail. I recommend it for anyone who craves heroines who are difficult and anything but run-of-the-mill. […]

  19. […] for most, it was actually a 2011 book for me. I’ve only ever read one other Lively novel, Moon Tiger, but she made a wonderful first impression on me and I’d been wanting to read more of her […]

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