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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

‘I’m writing a history of the world… And in the process, my own’.

Claudia Hampton is an ex-war correspondent, currently a popular historian on her deathbed in a London hospital. She is old, ill and lying in hospital, gently condescended to by the nurse at her bedside. She reviews her life as a paradigm of human history, and in a kaleidoscopic pattern of ‘voices’ – voice from her own past and present, who are allowed to make their own presences felt, their own separate points of view clear.

These voices were her gentle mother ‘retiring from history’; her father killed on the Somme, unknown to her’ her brother Gordon, to whom she has sometimes been frighteningly close to; Sylvia, her sister in law whom she regards condescendingly; Jasper her flamboyant ex-husband with mixed Anglo-Russian ancestry, whom she has a daughter Lisa who is a disappointment to Claudia because she is so unlike Claudia; Laszlo, a Hungarian orphan a product of the Russian invasion of Hungary; Tom Southern, her lover and an army captain and the stillborn child of their union; the people in Claudia’s life bears a piece of the world’s history and how it impacts her life.

After reading and loving “I Saw Ramallah” so much, I came to conclude that I do not mind novels without strong plotline, and happy to tag along with one with strong sense of place, memories and characters. Moon Tiger falls under this category, and is ideal for the sort of book that you may read once from front to back and subsequently dip in and out for future re-reads.

There are many sub-themes that the novel touches on:

About being a Historian

I know quite well why I became a historian. Quasi-historian, as one of my enemies put it, some desiccated don too frightened of the water to put a toe out of his Oxford College. It was because dissension was frowned upon when I was a child: ‘Don’t argue, Claudia’, ‘Claudia, you must not answer back like that.’ Argument, of course, is the whole point o history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested. I well remember the moment at which I discovered that history was not a matter of received opinion (Page 14).

Mother-daughter relationship

What I could offer Lisa was not the conventional haven of maternal love and concern but my mind and my energy. If she had not acquired these genetically then I was quite prepared to show her how to think and act. I was no good at kidding away tears or telling bedtime stories – any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant (Page 51).

When Lisa visits me these days she talks always of mundane things; she is carefully dispassionate. She tells me about the weather, about the boys’ school reports, about a play she went to. She is pretending that what is happening to me is not happening, but she is also avoiding dissension, because you do not quarrel with someone in my condition. I find all this trying, but I can see that there is no alternative. Self-exposure is anathema to Lisa; she is perfectly entitled to feel that way. I love Lisa. I always have, after my fashion the trouble is that she has never been able to realise this. I don’t blame her, she wanted a different sort of mother. The least I can do is try to behave now in a way that she would consider decent. And decency consists in leaving things unsaid, ignoring the inescapable, applying oneself to inessentials (Page 171).

About Claudia’s love for Tom Southern

We are no longer in the same story, and when I read what you wrote I think of all that you do not know. You are left behind, in another place and another time, and I am someone else…inhabiting a world you would not recognise. I am twice your age. You are young, I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of forty years of history and forty years of my life;…Death is total absence, you said. Yes and no. You are not absent so long as you are in my head. …I preserve you, as others will preserve me. For a while.

About war

You lived from day to day. That of course is a banality but it had a prosaic truth to it then. Death was unmentionable and kept at bay with code-words and the careless understated style o the playing fields (Page 90).

Wars are fought by children. Conceived by their mad demonic elders and fought by boys. I say that now, caught out in surprise at how young people are, forgetting that it is not they who are young but I who am old. Nevertheless, the aces of the Russian front, the million upon million dead Germans, dead Ukrainians, Georgians, Tartars, Latvians, Siberians are the plump unlined faces of youths. The rest of us grow old and tell each other what really happened they, of course, will never know, just as they never knew at the time (Page 104).

She lies awake in the small hours. On the bedside table is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing read eyes a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing, simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of the Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer. (page 76).

Rating: 4.5/5

Sometimes my love for a book is irrational. Inconsequential trivial item like the mosquito coil, conjures memories of me spending a big part of my childhood lighting them every night, and white ashes greeted me in the morning where another day I am spared from the mosquito bite. The image is too nostalgic that it defies logic I fell in love with the title. I like the character Claudia, unconventional and un-maternal though she is, I like her a lot, and also because she is a war correspondent. I found myself constantly marking passages that speaks to my heart.

Moon Tiger was a winner amongst a strong shortlist of Chinua Achebe, Peter Ackroyd,Nina Bawden, Brian Moore and Iris Murdoch (excluding that year were books by William Boyd,  Ian McEwan and VS Naipaul), and deservedly so.  Moon Tiger has piqued my interest to explore other books Penelope Lively.

I’ll leave you with my favourite passage of all:

All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me. I need it; I need you, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, all of them. And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

Have you read any of Penelope Lively’s books? If so what other books would you recommend?

Other Reviews (mostly positive):

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.

Mangala palliv: Undoubtedly “Moon Tiger” has been a wonderful read and viewed through traditional aspects of evaluating fictional output like language, detail, portrayal of a milieu, characterisation, plot, narrative – it has been been first rate.

Kaizerin of Bookish Dark: Read this book? Yes. And read it again, and again, and appreciate the loveliness of its message: though we must all die, we may live on, in the stories we leave in the minds and hearts of those who survive us.

She Reads Novels: I still find it hard to say what I thought about this book. I was impressed by it, but did I actually enjoy it? No, not really – but it was certainly one of the most interesting and unusual books I’ve read this year.

Yvann@ Reading fuelled by tea: while I don’t feel evangelical about it, I would recommend it as a gentle, peaceful read with a magnificent central character.

Of Books and Bikes: Lively has a quiet, understated way of writing that can work magic on you and leave you moved and wanting more.

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Classics 1987, 2006; Length: 207 pages; Setting: London, Egypt. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 27 March 2011.

About the writer:

Penelope Lively CBE, FRSL (born March 17, 1933) is a prolific, popular and critically acclaimed author of fiction for both children and adults. She has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, winning once for Moon Tiger in 1987.

Penelope Low was born in Cairo in 1933. She spent her early childhood in Egypt, before being sent to boarding school in England at the age of twelve. She read Modern History at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She married the academic Jack Lively in 1957 and lived with him in Swansea and Oxford, among other places; he died in 1998, and Penelope Lively now lives in north London.

Lively’s writing, like that of her peers Margaret Drabble, Nina Bawden, A. S. Byatt and others, is influenced strongly by an awareness of, and a response to, the sweeping social changes that have taken place in Britain in the course of the twentieth century. Her first novel for adults, The Road to Lichfield, was published in 1977 and made the shortlist for the Booker Prize. She repeated this feat in 1984 with According to Mark, and eventually won the prize in 1987 with Moon Tiger. As is the case with all of Lively’s fiction, the novel is marked by a close attention to the power of memory, the impact of the past upon the present, and the tensions between ‘official’ and personal histories.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was awarded the OBE in 1989 and the CBE in 2001. She is also a Vice President of the Friends of the British Library

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


20 thoughts on “Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

  1. JoV, sincerely I love your style of review. See, you take time to break down the novel for those who have not yet read the book. Take it from me, I like your approach to review. Great review. I have about three or so of books by Lively and this one is inclusive. Thanks for giving me the edge to read her. Cheers!

    Posted by Geosi | April 4, 2011, 7:13 pm
  2. Geosi, thank you so much for your kind words! I hope I didn’t reveal too much spoilers, because this novel is a gem. Which other two you have got? I really want to read more of Penelope Lively’s novel. Cheers to you too!

    Posted by JoV | April 4, 2011, 7:21 pm
  3. I have according to Mark and Heat Wave. But judging from your review, I think I would start with Moon Tiger. Thanks.

    Posted by Geosi | April 4, 2011, 8:04 pm
    • Geosi,
      I am going to try the other two you mentioned. For now, I’m afraid it will be pale in comparison for this one. You know the feeling of reading a masterpiece of an author and being let down by the author’s second books so on and so forth.

      Posted by JoV | April 5, 2011, 9:06 pm
  4. wonderfully done post-I have yet to read one of her books

    I just read online at the New Yorker two short stories by Yiyun Lee-there is a also a gread podcast of one of her short stories at the web page of the Manchester Guardian-you could download it to your Ipod and listen to it on the train

    The Vagrants is now on my read very soon list-I will be posting on her short stories soon

    hope are well

    Posted by Mel u | April 5, 2011, 7:38 am
    • Mel, Thanks. I don’t mind a good short stories by some of my favourite authors. YiYun Lee wrote many short stories and I think it’s worth exploring Manchester Guardian! Thanks again!

      Posted by JoV | April 5, 2011, 9:10 pm
  5. I read and reviewed this one last year and I loved it! It was my first Penelope Lively too! I thought it was SO powerful and exquisitely intricate. It made me want to pick up more books by Lively… so far I have three others on my shelves. I’ll have to pick up one of them soon, though I feel like Moon Tiger is probably her masterpiece.

    Posted by Steph | April 5, 2011, 2:16 pm
    • Steph, I fear of reading an author’s masterpiece and feel let down by second books and so on! I’ll try to link up to your review. I am SO glad you like it! Exquisite is the word.

      Posted by JoV | April 5, 2011, 9:14 pm
  6. Penelope Lively is a new author to me, but after reading your review, I just have to add her to my to-read list. I don’t mind wandering storylines either, as long as the meanderings have a purpose. I like how you analyzed the separate strands of the novel!

    Posted by Chinoiseries | April 5, 2011, 7:48 pm
    • Chinoiseries, thank you for your kind words! The meanderings of Moon Tiger do have a purpose (unlike 2666, which I am not sure where it is going, do you have the same nagging feeling?!!). I didn’t know Penelope Lively before this too, but decide to give her a shot as I aim to read most of the Man Booker Prize winners (although I hate several that I have read on the list!) It turn out to be a pleasant surprise, because I thought it was going to be like Hotel Du Lac (Anita Brookner), or The Life and time of Michael K (JM Coetzee), or The Gathering (Anne Enright)! All of which infuriates me. 🙂

      What I wanted to say is: you won’t be disappointed with this one!

      Posted by JoV | April 5, 2011, 9:22 pm
  7. Is Moon Tiger the word for mosquito coil? (I don’t understand)

    This is a Booker winner that is not yet on my radar so I’m glad you brought it up. It sounds good!

    Posted by mee | April 6, 2011, 2:06 am
  8. Ah, I do seem to like the way she writes (and a beautiful book cover too!) Thanks for the recommendation. I had no idea that *that* is called a Moon Tiger.

    Posted by Wilfrid Wong | April 8, 2011, 12:12 am
  9. The is a green coil that slowly burns all night repelling mosquitoes dropping away into lengths of grey ash its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. I include this quote in case you were wondering about the title and also because it suggests some of the appeal of s Booker winner. Atmospheric enough in its own right the image takes on more power when you know that this Moon Tiger comes into focus because it lies beside two lovers Claudia and Tom on one of their last snatched nights together in Cairo during the second world war.

    Posted by business review | April 11, 2011, 3:54 pm
  10. JoV – A beautifully written review. Makes me want to read it again just to appreciate everything you have pointed out.

    And I agree with you about Hotel Du Lac – I tried but couldn’t finish that one.

    Posted by Tracey | July 9, 2011, 10:30 am


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! March 2011 « Bibliojunkie - April 4, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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