MAN BROOKER PRIZE 1987
Booker club: Moon Tiger
Ludicrously patronised by reviewers, Penelope Lively's novel is actually one of the very best Booker winners ever
Friday 19 March 2010
"The Moon Tiger 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 Penelope Lively'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. Tom is about to return to the frontline – and death – and the two have barely even had time to get to know each other. The coil burns away as Claudia tries to cement Tom in her mind and gets him to tell her his life story. Eventually, he comes to her. "I like this part of the story best," she says, and Lively writes: "And oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending. Please may it have a happy ending. The Moon Tiger is almost entirely burned away now; its green spiral is mirrored by an ash spiral in the saucer." What she doesn't write, but what we see, is the march of time, relentlessly trampling every moment into the past; the ash-spiral fragility of memory; the transience of passion; the fact that even when we burn brightest we are already dying …
I could go on, but you get the idea. I could also have included dozens of similarly potent images and extracted similar riches. Given a few more thousand words, I'd enjoy doing so. But for now, I should cut to the chase: Moon Tiger is one of the very best Booker winners. Few books I've read recently have given me so much pleasure. (Or pain – this is literature of the first order, after all.)
The novel is so good that I was rather taken aback, especially since it hadn't drifted onto my radar before. Perhaps I'm being solipsistic and the book is actually discussed and praised as often as it ought to be, but I just haven't spotted it. Yet the fact remains that it wasn't in the running for the recent Best Of Booker award (a gross oversight, given that mediocrities like The Ghost Road and Disgrace were). It's also notable that although plenty of the reviews I've found from 1987 recognise the novel's excellence, most of the broader press was distinctly condescending. The book sold well, but it was still considered an outsider and patronised widely as "the housewife's choice". WI Webb in the Guardian, meanwhile, damned it with the faint praise of being "suitable for the Harrods and Hatchard's market".
Aside from the whiff of sexism, to suggest the book is flowery and unchallenging is unjust. Moon Tiger is actually a singularly tough book. It doesn't flinch from unpleasantness (including incest and death, random, sudden and prolonged); it asks hard questions about memory and history and personal legacy; it's stylistically demanding and inventive.
The latter virtue is particularly interesting. Lively presents her narrative in an unusual way, often teasing over the same scene several times from various characters' different viewpoints (different both in terms of memory and original understanding), as well as that of an apparently omniscient narrator. It sounds tricksy, but there's never a feeling that Lively is showing off. Her style never gets in the way, it simply deepens understanding and enjoyment while making pretty nifty points about human fallibility and the difficulty of producing one true objective history of anything. The technique serves the story.
And it's this story that captivates. In Claudia Hampton, Lively has worked the impressive trick of creating a mean-spirited, selfish character with whom one can't help falling in love. We meet her as she lies dying and is occupying herself by composing a history of the world in her head – with herself as the heroine. Alongside virtuoso demonstrations of the coincidences and apparent malevolence of history (like the fact that, thanks to the use of wampum as currency, "the hat worn under a rainy Middlesex sky should be a matter of life and death for sea-shells under the shallows of Cape Cod"), we see Claudia crashing through the 20th century. She takes in the loss felt after the first world war, the exhilaration and horror of playing an active role in the second, the power and hilarious strangeness of the US afterwards and the decline and even more determined eccentricity of England. She does it with such style and brittle energy – and such disdainful amusement – that following her is a joy. Her victories are splendid (even when she is being unspeakably cruel to lesser intellects such as her brother's bovine wife) and her sorrows are always deeply felt.
The central tragedy, we come to realise, is that she is moving so far away from the man she loved. Her attempts to narrow that gap of age and time produce descriptions of Egypt in 1942 that rival those in the Alexandria Quartet for vividness and power. And as in the Alexandria Quartet they also come suffused with such a deep sense of loss that reading becomes occasionally near-unbearable. The book only becomes harder and more affecting as the glorious Claudia declines to inevitable death. If this is the "housewives' choice", it proves only that housewives are made of stern stuff and shouldn't be underestimated. It would have been my choice too. It's a wonderful book.