Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reading group: Moon Tiger by Penelope LIvely

Warning: plot spoil.

This Booker-winning novel, Ann's suggestion, concerns historian and ex-war reporter Claudia Hampton who, slowly dying in her seventies in a hospital bed, decides to write in her head a history of the world pinned around the story of her own life, a life in which the central, defining event was the loss of a lover, Tom, whom she met while in Egypt covering the Rommel campaign of 1942, a soldier killed in action.

Ann said that the first time she read the book, when it was first published, the thing that impressed itself on her was that central story, but this time around she was more taken by other aspects of the novel: the highly original mode of telling and the thematic preoccupations it conveys.

The novel is told in a variety of voices and perspectives: first person address by Claudia to the reader and third person reminiscences both from Claudia's point of view and those of others, providing contrasting versions of the same incidents, all framed by an omniscient present-day narration that watches Claudia on her hospital bed. As Claudia says unequivocally, 'The voice of history is of course composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard.' And also: 'The lives of others slot into my own life'. There's a linked preoccupation with identity: 'I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.' Everyone enthusiastically agreed that they had found all of this exciting and satisfying and psychologically true. We also agreed with Ann that a real feat of the book was to make Claudia, a potentially unengaging character (pushy, opinionated, aware of her own physical beauty and happy to use it cynically, horrible to her somewhat simple sister-in-law and unable to love her own child), entirely riveting and sympathetic, by virtue of her wit, wisdom and insight, and the energy of her voice. (Jenny said that Claudia was the sort of person she would want to like her.) I did point out later that even the abrasive nature of Claudia's personality is under question: it is after all the version of herself she is presenting (even when she presents other people's perspectives), and late in the book, when she characterises herself in a bad light to one of her hospital visitors, he protests that she is not at all like that, but 'brilliant.' Jenny said she found moving the portrait of emotional damage that the book gave: the effect of Claudia's loss on her ability to form later relationships, with the father of her child and the child herself.

While characterised by Claudia's voice - tough, ironic, sometimes sarcastic - the book is also vividly imagistic. The Moon Tiger of the title - 'Moon Tiger' is the brand-name of the mosquito coil that burns beside the bed as she lies with her lover Tom - is a potent symbol of the vivid and concrete-seeming present crumbling into the uncertainty of history, its 'red eye', 'dropping away into lengths of grey ash', finally becoming, the next morning, a 'green spiral mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer.'

Mark in particular thought the book was stunning. He said it was like a William Boyd (one of his favourite writers) but much, much better in terms of the writing, the thematic preoccupations and the insights. The book describes in detail the conditions in the desert (burnt-out tanks and bodies) that the intrepid Claudia insists on experiencing, and Mark said it was clear that Lively had done a fantastic amount of military research, and research into all the historical periods on which Claudia makes frequent wry comment, yet unlike McEwan, Lively never gives you a lecture, everything she includes is absolutely necessary to the story and the theme. Everyone agreed with this, and Jenny said that she has a habit of skipping when she reads books, but this is one book where she wanted to read every single sentence. Indeed, she savoured it and read it slowly. Mark thought the revelation of the incestuous relationship between Claudia and her brother was particularly well handled: the revelation is gradual so that it seems inevitable.

Now there came a voice of dissent. John spoke up and said that he felt like this about the beginning of the book, but became disappointed in it. Partly this was because he couldn't identify with upper-class characters - which stunned the rest of us: we felt that the book overcame any such prejudices - and partly because, due to the effect of the war on his own father, he always finds it difficult to read books set in the second world war. He said though that he found that in the war sections the novel became more conventionally narrative, and he found them boring, particularly the long italicised section towards the end, which is the lover Tom's diary of his experiences after his last meeting with Claudia and up to his death. This made people think and they began to remember they too had had something of the same feeling about the diary. I said that it didn't tell you much more about Tom's war experience than he had told Claudia in person more briefly. Jenny said that the one significant thing it did show was that Tom had gone on thinking about Claudia, indeed that she had been central to his thoughts, which is true. However everyone now agreed that it was too long. Then it occurred to someone, I think Jenny, that the time Claudia spends travelling with the the army in the desert - before they break down and she consequently meets Tom - takes up more of the book than her time with Tom. I suggested that perhaps this is one way in which the book is actually skewed by the weight of research, and, after thought, people agreed that that was probably true.

This didn't prevent a final judgement that the book was wonderful (unanimous apart from John). This is a tough book, tough in tone and subject matter and unflinching in the face of tough truths. Unbelievably it has been dismissed by critics as a 'women's book' (and apparently its Booker win attracted a lot of criticism for that reason), and we were roundly agreed that this was a case of the outrageous tendency to judge the author rather than the book.

Doug, who missed the meeting, wrote later to say that he had loved the book too, and echoed many of our positive comments. He said that he 'loved the way Lively explored the idea that we carry the history of the world / a museum around with us in our heads'. He did find some of the characters beside Claudia rather two-dimensional, but he thought the book beautifully written.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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