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Thursday, 12 November 2020

Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger


Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger (5***)

Yet another Booker Prize winner not read at the time: from 1987 in this case, sought out after reading Treasures of Time and A House Unlocked which we inherited from my mother-in-law. Moon Tiger is highly regarded, and rightly so. I was not disappointed.

It begins with an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed. Not the most appealing topic I can think of, and not a particularly likeable woman. She had once been a highly intelligent, attractive and successful popular historian who looked down on those not so gifted, such as her sister-in-law and even her own daughter. Yet, without much perseverance, you are drawn in and begin to warm to the character.

As she lies there, mind wandering, she begins to write a history of the world, no “nit-picking  stuff” but “… the whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars”. It is really her own history: the lifelong competition with her brother, her relationships with her daughter, the father of her daughter and the lover she found and lost as a war correspondent in Cairo, and the phases of her life before, during and after.

All are present in her thoughts at the same time. Episodes from different periods come out of sequence, told from different points of view – hers, her brother’s, her daughter’s – sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third. The analogy is the moon tiger, “… a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.” Like memory, it becomes a messy spiral of ash in the saucer. 

As in her other books, Lively is re-working her recurring themes and concerns: the interpretation and reinterpretation of memory, how different people’s memories of the same events can differ, how the past relates to the present, and personal history. It results in a complex structure despite which the narrative moves adroitly forward, a considerable feat for an author to pull off, perhaps even more accomplished than A. S. Byatt’s Possession, the 1990 winner which I also admire.  

 
It reminds me of T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

24 comments:

  1. It was glorious. One of my few five star reviews this year.

    I enjoyed Possession but Lively’s writing is more pared back. One of the best Booker winners that I have read even if it was viewed as “the house wife’s choice” when it was released!

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    1. My starring system is fairly idiosyncratic which is why I allowed myself a 5*** category for books I enjoyed so much I would like to read them again. This is one such book.

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  2. She's a wonderful writer, abd this was the right choice for the Booker. No need to compare it to byatt, a completely different writer. I wonder if you were looking for another female to compare to? If so, I wonder why? Writers are writers, gender shouldn't classify them.

    But thank you for reminding me of this wonderful tour de force.

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    1. I mentioned Possession simply because it is another excellent Booker winner from around the same time that I had read myself. When they had a "golden Booker" in 2018, Moon Tiger was selected to represent the 1980s, although The English Patient was judged the overall winner. I'd better add that to my reading list, although when it originally won in 1992 it tied with Sacred Hunger (which from it's description sounds upsetting and will not go on my list).

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  3. Booker Prize winners are usually a good bet to read, I agree.

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    1. Agreed, but as mentioned in previous comment, there are some I am too much of a wimp to want to read.

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  4. Thanks for adding another title to my reading list. I often avoid "award winning" books--especially in the year of such a declaration. Prefer to let them season a bit to see if they stand the test of time (and hype). Though there are some I will never read (like you) just because I don't care for the subject/style. Just my own idiosyncrasy.

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    1. It had been on my reading list and then my reading pile for some time, since reading the other two I mentioned by the same author. I thought this by far the best. Yes, I've got some other old award winners on my list too.

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  5. This does sound like an enjoyable book to read. Thank you for the review and recommendation! I will add it to my list.

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    1. I hope you like it. I can't recommend it enough, although there will no doubt be some who don't get on with it, just as I don't get on with all others' favourites.

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  6. She is a very talented writer - successfully and unusually producing quality fiction for both children and adults. I'm glad you enjoyed "Moon Tiger" so much and maybe one day I will get round to reading it myself.

    (I hope that this comment meets with your approval)

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    1. I am delighted to inform you that your encouraging comment has been approved and that if I did not have it in mind to read the book again one day, I would have happily put it in the post for you instead of in my bookcase.

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    2. No problem comrade! Brass is brass and you don't want to chuck it away. This is one of the key tests for Yorkshire ethnicity. Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.

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  7. I have fallen out of the habit of reading for pleasure. When I read your review, once again I made up my mind that there is more to life than required reading.

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    1. I think I know what you mean. There have been long periods in when I only read non-fiction, usually work-related, and would probably not have had the patience to read Moon Tiger, but I am now enjoying catching up with these things.

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  8. ". . . how different people’s memories of the same events can differ".

    That observation of yours is a bug bear in my life. It has estranged me (a little) from my mother. She has been rewriting history for as long as I can remember. And it hurts. Now? A few decades down the line? Now, listening to her, I might as well question my very existence. It's not good. They say that the worst you can do to your offspring is to not acknowledge THEIR reality.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Tasker. Sounds like "stream of consciousness", something that most find amusing, others not so much.

    U

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    1. Not my original observation, and despite the nature of the book her daughter's point of view is not explored as much as it could have been, but the way she thinks about her and from what you say I think you would get it completely.

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  9. The novelS STORYLINE is similar to David Nobbs GOING GENTLY
    how odd

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    1. Having looked it up it sounds like situations are similar but the plots quite different. David Nobbs' book also sounds fairly humorous whereas Penelope Lively is perhaps deeper and more philospophical.

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  10. A post which gathers in Penelope Lively, A.S. Byatt, and The Four Quartets tells me that the age of literature is not over.
    *Moon Tiger* gathered in all the themes of Penelope Lively's novels and short stories, even her children's fiction.

    Historians go to primary sources, which means written material: government records, statistics, bundles of letters, manuscripts, internal reports which ministers and civil servants wanted buried; material to which the lay reader never has access.
    So the historian is a privileged reader: this shows in their more personal writings: I'm thinking of Dame Vera Wedgwood's collection of essays, *History and Hope* and Barbara Tuchman's foreword to her book *The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World from 1890-1914*.

    Our private recollections are not to be trusted. Yet they are the story of our lives :*Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you,* as Paul Simon wrote.
    *Moon Tiger* balances the private and public brilliantly.

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    1. Private recollection not trusted is one of the reasons this blog is a memoir and not an autobiography. We construct and reconstruct out lives both forwards and backwards.

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  11. I appreciate your distinction between autobiography and memoir.
    I was reading bits of Malraux's *Antimemoirs* after finding an old hardback copy in a musty Glasgow bookshop, Voltaire and Rousseau.
    Malraux wrote in a kind of faux candour, very French and as evasive at times as Voltaire and Rousseau.
    Malraux enjoyed ministerial power, of course, which the other two never did. Naturally I admire all three. With reservations.

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  12. Thank you Tasker for reviewing Moon Tiger!
    That reminded me of another book by Penelope Lively which is slumbering on my bookshelf - trying to impersonate the beautiful wisdom of T.S.Eliot above.
    "The Road to Lichfield" I bought in the same year as my son was born, 1983 - as Lively writes: "Her own past, too, waved a cheery hand from over the horizon..."

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    1. She made me think recently on holiday in a place I hadn't been for 30 years, that the same people and incidents were still there concurrently in the present day. There are a couple more unread Livelies still on our bookshelves that came from my wife's mother.

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