Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively.
Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively. Grove Press (1997), Paperback, 208 pages
A novel about an elderly woman reliving her independent, private life as it intersects with public events beyond our control.
Claudia Hempstead, the book’s main character, may be dying, but she is neither passive nor complaining about it. Instead she is busy recalling who she has been and what has mattered in her life. Because she is an historian, her own history involves wonderful deliberation on the links between past and present, public and private experiences. The historical books she has published have been popular and controversial. She has included the stories of ordinary people and recognized that history is always different depending on who it is that is doing the telling.
In her memory, Claudia returns to her childhood and her close, but competitive relationship with her brother. She writes of her long-time lover and the daughter she had with him. And she relives her time in Cairo as a journalist during World War II, and the deep love she experienced with a soldier she met there shortly before he was killed in the war. In reading his account of wartime activities, she realizes that she is now forty years older than he will ever be.
This book resonated with me on several levels. As I age, I struggle over how to deal with my growing limitations. Lively gives me an alternative to the dismal scenarios I have witnessed. Claudia’s body is failing, and sometimes her mind slips. She, who has lived much of her life with words, is frustrated when she can’t remember the word for “curtain.” Her visitors and her nurses see her as declining, but invisible to them, she is very much alive, climbing over rocks, arguing, and falling deeply in love.
Because I too have been an historian, I loved the sections in which she tells of her understanding of the past and various uses of words and languages. Overall I share Claudia’s perspectives, but disagree with her belief that past and present are one. I value chronology as a consistent, factual framework that I can depend on while I explore the less definite, but more important aspects of the past. I see, however, that Claudia’s insistence on viewing the past and present are co-existing helps her relive her own past so vividly. Lively seems to hold on chronology as an overall structure for her novel. The title of the book, Moon Tiger, is a reference to a burning coil used to discourage insects in Cairo during wartime. As such, it is a very time-oriented image.
Lively’s shifts in perspective in describing people and events in Claudia’s life were intriguing and strengthened the novel. I had reservations about Claudia’s treatment, past and present, of her daughter. I was glad to see from Lisa’s understanding that she had developed into a fuller and more human individual than her mother realized. So much for omniscient motherhood.
Although Lively was unknown to me, I was impressed with her writing. She is a British woman, born in Cairo in 1933 and living there during her wartime childhood, a time and a place which she says she saw but did not understand. Her sense of her characters is exquisite. She has written a number of other novels, and I intend to find and read more of them.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Moon Tiger. It soothed my own fears of aging and death. I strongly recommend it to others, especially those who are open to exploring possibilities for us as we age.
I read Moon Tiger as part of a readalong of novels about older women sponsored by Carol at Book Word.