Awarded the 1987 Booker Prize, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively opens with a septuagenarian Claudia Hampton dying in a hospital room. As she snaps and snarls at the nurses tasked with taking care of her, Claudia reflects on her life. An author of history books, she announces her grandiose plan to write a history of the world. What she really means is a history of the world as seen through the eyes of Claudia Hampton.
The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks that begin with Claudia’s childhood, revealing her competitive spirit with her brother, Gordon. The flashbacks include her role as a historian; her stint as a journalist in Egypt during World War II; her love affair with a British army officer; her later love affair with Jasper, the father of her child; and her sponsorship of Laszlo, a young Hungarian student. The flashbacks alternate with present day reality as Claudia lies in the hospital bed while visited by a parade of characters who have played a role her life—her sister-in-law, her daughter, Jasper, and Laszlo. Each visit triggers another memory from the past.
The sporadic shifts in time are further complicated by shifts in points of view. Most of the narrative unfolds in Claudia’s first-person point of view. But there is an occasional shift in which the same incident is described from a third person point of view. These overlapping perspectives shed an entirely new light on the event, adding multiple layers of meaning to a seemingly straightforward event.
Claudia can be both intimidating and attractive. On the whole, she is not very likeable. She fails as a mother to show love and support for her daughter—a failure she acknowledges to her daughter and apologizes for as she lies on her death bed. Her narcissism, arrogance, self-absorption, vanity, fierce competitiveness, and incorrigibility are on full display throughout her life. But there is a softer and even admirable side to her that slowly emerges as the novel unfolds. She is capable of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime love. Her sensibility is profoundly impacted by the horrors of war. She is always outspoken, independent, fearless, capable of great compassion, and fiercely committed to acting on her beliefs.
Woven within Claudia’s reminisces and reflections are gritty explorations of war, love, death, incest; historical events and historical figures; archaeological sites in Egypt; the ties that bind and the ties that break; the things that are said or left unsaid; chance encounters that have a lasting impact; the pivotal role language plays in shaping our view of the past; and the many selves we leave behind as we make the inexorable march to maturity. Claudia superimposes one thought with another, one time- frame with another in a complex montage that allows us to see each character and event at different times and in different ages. This technique allows for the gradual piecing together of the fragmentary portrayals so that a more complete picture emerges of each event and character, including Claudia as she reveals more about herself with the novel’s progression.
The moon tiger of the title is a reference to a mosquito coil that gradually burns down to become ash. Similarly, as Claudia Hampton recalls and reflects, she gradually pares down her many layers until she, too, becomes ash.
It is a testament to Penelope Lively’s skill as a writer that she is able to weave complex themes in a complex structure with fully developed characters wrapped in engaging, energetic prose. Her depiction of Claudia Hampton as a multifaceted, larger-than-life character who can be disliked and admired simultaneously deserves special praise.