When Litlove suggested I read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (the Booker prize winner from 1987), I made sure to mooch a copy right away. And I was right to do so; I finished it the other day and enjoyed every minute of it. I read her novel The Photograph a little while ago and liked it quite a lot, so I knew I would be in good hands. She has a quiet, understated way of writing that can work magic on you and leave you moved and wanting more.
Moon Tiger tells the story of Claudia, a woman on her deathbed dying of cancer. She is now looking back over her life, thinking about the things she has done and the people she has known. She thinks about how her life has intersected with historical events and she contemplates history itself — how its narrative gets created and how individuals fit within that narrative. She claims she is writing a history of the world, although it’s clear that this book will never get written, but this is the way she prefers to face death — with a project in mind and work to be done. Her history of the world will be a magnificent book, she hopes, one that will take in the large sweeps of history and somehow have space for her own story. Her view of history is unabashedly personal (the plural “you” in this passage are the English pilgrims to America):
You are public property — the received past. But you are also private; my view of you is my own, your relevance to me is personal. I like to reflect on the wavering tenuous line that runs from you to me, that leads from your shacks at Plymouth Plantation to me, Claudia, hopping the Atlantic courtesy of PanAm and TWA and BA to visit my brother in Harvard. This, you see, is the point of all this. Egocentric Claudia is once again subordinating history to her own puny existence. Well — don’t we all?
She concludes that the pilgrims weren’t entirely wrong when they claimed to know there’s such a thing as eternal life; heaven may not exist, but those pilgrims continue to live on in her mind, gaining their eternity through the attention we still pay them.
The book has a lot of this sort of philosophical rumination, but it also has a good story to tell. Lively introduces us to members of Claudia’s family: her brother, Gordon, with whom she has an unusually close relationship; her daughter, Lisa, who seems not to understand Claudia very well (and vice versa); and her long-time although often-estranged lover Jasper. No one quite understands why the brilliant, beautiful Claudia has devoted so much time to this man, but Claudia merely shrugs and talks about the mysteries of love and attraction. These family members drift in and out of Claudia’s hospital room, and Lively uses their entrances and exits as opportunities to tell their stories.
[Some spoilers here, but I’m not giving away anything that’s not on the back cover.] Lurking behind all these relationships is a secret Claudia has kept for many years; during World War II, while she was working as a war correspondent in Egypt, she met and fell in love with Tom, a young and dashing soldier. They had an intense love affair that ended abruptly and tragically. Claudia has never really recovered, and the psychic damage caused by this failure to recover accounts for some of what appears mysterious to her family and friends. It helps explain her attachment to Jasper, the man who will in no way threaten Tom’s place in her memories. But there are other secrets, too, deeper and darker ones, and Claudia eventually is revealed to the reader as a much more complex being than anyone in her life can recognize, perhaps even herself.
Lively uses a shifting point of view; the narrative is told at times in the first person with Claudia speaking and at times in the third person, focused on Claudia mostly, but also getting into the consciousness of some of the other characters, especially Lisa. This constant shifting could come to seem awkward if Lively weren’t so expert at using the shifts to capture the different ways people perceive the same event. She’ll sometimes tell the same scene from different characters’ perspectives, or from an interior and then exterior perspective, and the scene will be slightly different, a phrase or two added or taken away, an emphasis altered and the meaning changed. She’s getting at the idea that how we choose to tell our story shapes the story itself. There are no meaningful facts outside a story told by a particular person in a particular way. This holds true for the narrative of history as well; to study history is to study the manifold ways people have told the story of humanity over time.
I can see why this novel won the Booker, and I hope to read even more work by Lively — has anyone read anything of hers besides the two I mention here?