by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2017
Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
This is the tenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. It is — let me cut to the chase — superb. I have long loved Penelope Lively’s writing, and this was one of those rainy day books, long-owned but put aside because I knew I’d want to relish it, which prompted me to write my list and get on with actually reading it.
If Lively were a bloke — say, one named Martin or Julian or Kazuo — she’d be fêted as one of the greatest British novelists of the last half-century. As it is, she’s acknowledged (this book did, after all, win the 1987 Booker Prize) yet rarely acclaimed. She’s held to be just a little too middle-brow, too ‘housewifey’, too Radio 4 to be that good. But she is. She really is.
The book is centred on Claudia Hampton, a clever, caustic, glamorous, wilful septuagenarian historian. When we first meet her, she is dying of cancer. Hers, though, has been a life lived to the max.
From her intense (and, it transpires, incestuous) relationship with her brother, Gordon; to her one true love, Tom, whose death in war-torn Egypt robs her of so much of what-might-have-been (and whose anti-mosquito device gives rise to the book’s title: as it burns, it turns to ash: as we live, we fade); to her on-off fling with Jasper that brings her a daughter she has little time for (in stark contrast to her ‘adopted’ son, Laszlo).
She could be a deeply unsympathetic character; yet, in Lively’s hands, she is too vivid to be anything other than magnetically, magestically interesting.
We flit through time. We see Claudia’s story told from multiple perspectives. But it’s not Lively’s writing style which transfixes (though it is brilliantly done), but the ideas and observations which fizz. Here’s my favourite passage (among many):
‘We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes. Our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous.’