moon tiger by penelope lively (andre deutsch 1987)
Reviewed by Emily Nelson
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay on writing, feminism, and everything that lies between, Woolf writes extensively against “masculine” history, which favors stories focused on war and patriarchal politics and dismisses “feminine” history that “deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room” (77). Instead of perpetuating such a one-sided view of history, Woolf argues, it is the job of writers — particularly female writers — to explore and celebrate a more subjective and inclusive version of history that emphasizes and elevates the history of the individual above the history of the political. And in my opinion, there’s no better example of this principle in action than Penelope Lively’s 1987 novel Moon Tiger, which explores a fictional female historian looking back on life on her deathbed.
Moon Tiger is something of a hidden gem; even though it won the Booker Prize in 1987, it’s received little subsequent fanfare. I first encountered the novel in a college lit class and couldn’t put it down – as an English major with a social history minor, my immediate thought was where has this book been all my life? Lively’s spellbinding narrative of love, war, and history with an emphasis on the personal seems ripped from Virginia Woolf’s playbook — by penning a “history of the world” on her deathbed, Lively’s protagonist Claudia Hampton is, in turn, penning her own history. In a sense, her life story is the history of the world.
A trailblazing journalist with keenly observant (if cruelly judgmental) wit, Claudia is a difficult character with a difficult story to tell. From a feminist perspective, she can be a supremely frustrating heroine; she regularly disparages other women, calling her own daughter “dull” (9) and her brother’s wife “stupid” (27), and is only intellectually stimulated and challenged by her male colleagues. Furthermore, she is frustrating from a historical standpoint – she tells her story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around between decades to construct a thoroughly subjective collage of events that include a stint as a war correspondent in Egypt during World War II, numerous love affairs, and a scandalous limousine car crash. But above all, her story is one that is personal more than it is political, with Claudia’s internal narrative eclipsing the dramas and danger of the World War that surrounds her. As the lone woman in a male-dominated field of intellectuals and writers, Claudia carves out a precarious niche for herself, negotiating identities while staying true to her personal and professional desires. Her life, as historically and politically inconsequential as it may be on a grand scale, is nonetheless the centerpoint of the novel, framed by a doomed love affair which Claudia tries and fails to replicate throughout her life.
A string of narrators give the reader a peek into Claudia’s life — her brother Gordon, a lifelong rival with whom she briefly shares a romantic relationship; her brother’s wife, whose insecurity provides a parallel vision of what Claudia’s life might have been; and Claudia’s daughter, whose feelings of resentment and abandonment by her high-and-mighty mother offer a peek at the potential pitfalls of Claudia’s jet-setting career. The novel challenges us to accept Claudia in all her imperfections and character flaws; she’s never an undisputed heroine but instead a deeply frustrating and sometimes contradictory woman. She’s often unsympathetic, which is exactly why she remains sympathetic years after publication.
But above all, Moon Tiger stands the test of time because of the sharp, highly creative writing. Penelope Lively’s tight, no-nonsense prose creates a memorable language for her indomitable narrator, creating in Claudia a narrator who is as unreliable and unlikable as she is sympathetic and straightforward. The story’s distinctive interiority and shifting subjectivity make it impossible to replicate — a Guardian interview reveals that there was once discussion of a Moon Tiger film, but all attempts at a script were thrown out because none could replicate Lively’s unique narrative perspective. Claudia, perhaps precisely because of her contradictory nature and the multiplicity of her personas the reader encounters, remains one of the most memorable and compelling protagonists I’ve encountered in a novel. Moon Tiger, in all its impressionistic glory, is worth a revisit (or a first encounter, if you like me have gone without discovering it until recently) precisely for its challenging center – a refreshingly frustrating, precarious protagonist whose embrace of subjective history urges the reader to rethink notions of what is “true” in matters of gender, love, war, and the lived experience.