Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Claudia Hampton is 76 years old and approaching the end of her life. In fiction final days are serene, composed, moving calmly towards reconciliation and conclusion. Or it might be a gloomy time, full of regrets for those who will live on as well as for the dying. In Moon Tiger Penelope Lively gives us an alternative to both the serene and the gloomy end of days. Claudia is spending hers as vividly as she lived the rest of her life.

46 Moon Tiger

The structure of the novel reflects a view of life not as linear (no journey metaphors here), but as happening all at once. Claudia’s life is an accretion of her experiences, of her achievements and failures, of those she has loved. As she lies in hospital, attended by medical staff, she is visited by people she has known, and by memories of her life. The story is told from multiple and rapidly shifting perspectives. At some points we are with her in her hospital bed, then shift to her visitors, whose different experience of the same events is caught by a slight changes.

She has a project.

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

This is the opening paragraph. The history of the world is in immediate contrast with the infantalising language of the nurse (‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl’). We may be amused by Claudia’s intention, but by the end of the novel we understand that it was a good description of her occupation, even if it was composed in her head

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

As an old person she has been written off, no longer ‘someone’, but the reader soon learns that Claudia has a continuing, rich and fecund inner life. The novel was first published in 1987 (it was the Booker prize winner that year). Can we be confident that medical staff are less patronising today, recognise that a person is still a being, even on their deathbed?

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument and competition. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. In the desert she met and fell in love with Tom, but he was killed. Fiction often presents the love of a woman’s life as her main story. With Tom’s death Claudia’s life should, in conventional terms, have been over, or at least ruined, and without further interest to a reader. But her life continued, for forty more eventful years. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. Old women are usually thought of as moderating their stance towards the world but Claudia does not do this. She lives a life that is too challenging.

The novel then refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The ‘happily ever after’ that threads through fairy stories, school stories, romances, and much of ‘women’s’ fiction is not Claudia’s ambition. She has forty more eventful years after Tom’s death.

Neither Claudia nor Penelope Lively accepts the fiction writer’s traditional focus for women. In the conventional version, women’s lives after marriage, when children have been reared and become adults, are of little interest. (There are exceptions: see the growing list of books with strong older women in fiction.) How many years to live after that, in maturity and old age? More than half your life. How to be someone when the world tells you – you should have gone? (A phrase a colleague came across recently is coffin-dodger.)

And the final days and hours? Claudia spends these as she has lived. She examines her life, the final days are another accretion of events, strata laid down as in geology. Addressing her long-dead lover, Tom, in the final chapter, she says,

I am twice your age, You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself.

… I need you, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, all of them. And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing. (p206-7)

As in life, so in places, as Claudia describes when she revisited Cairo, the site of her love affair.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes, Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

Penelope Lively was interviewed in 2009 (two decades after Moon Tiger was published) by Sarah Crown in the Guardian. ‘The idea that memory is linear is nonsense, What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.’

We should not assume too close an identification of Claudia with the author, not least because Penelope Lively was not in her 70s when she created the character and she is still very much with us. She said, ‘while she is not me, I did give her some of my thoughts about the operation of memory and the nature of evidence. I never entirely liked Claudia, but I had great respect for her, and envied her ability to crash through life in a way that I cannot.’

It’s an unsettling book. The comfortable cliché of the journey’s end is rejected. I suspect that some people find Claudia too difficult, an unsympathetic character. She is not prepared to live as other people want or expect. Do we need to like Claudia in order to see that she offers a different approach to being an older woman?


I am indebted to Jeanette King’s book Discourses of Ageing in Fiction and Feminism: the invisible woman, published in 2013 by Palgrave McMillan.

This readalong is the first on this blog exploring older women in fiction. Next, in October, will be Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction

10 Responses to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

  1. I really enjoyed this review, thank you. I’ll definitely look out for the book. I am astonished that 1987 is now so long ago!

    I thought of two more possibles for your list – All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West, and Falling, by Elizabeth Jane Howard (which I didn’t really like but is interesting).

    I hope you’re settling comfortably into your new home!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for more suggestions for the older women’s list. And your good wishes for settling in. Boxes in single figures in every room now.
      And glad you will look out for this as I think that Moon Tiger is definitely worth a read (or reread).

      • Re-reading is so rewarding, isn’t it? I never used to, I thought it wasn’t worth bothering, but I have changed my mind. A re-read offers so much more (assuming you can remember much about the initial reading).

        I still have boxes in single figures in many rooms 3 years after I last moved, so I am most impressed by your progress!

  2. Anne

    I have just loaded this onto my Kindle and look forward to reading it. Which is worst do you think- to end one’s life physically frail and ill but with all one’s mental faculties/ or numbed by mental incapacity? My father died in the former state; the day before he died he had argued with Derek about some aspect of Anglo- Saxon history! And for those last three weeks of his life he talked and talked about his experiences in the war, terrible experiences which he had never talked about before- the loss of his three best friends..we never knew this- he had NEVER mentioned their deaths before.
    I look forward to reading this book with the memory of his last few weeks in my mind. I will write again when I have read it.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to this book and its author. I enjoyed it immensely as you can see in my review, . The book calmed some of my own fears about aging, by showing how the main character was far more alert than her nurses and visitors realize.

  4. Caroline

    So glad you enjoyed it. Going to read your review next!
    I think we can live our old age as we choose, not accept being patronised by people. Claudia certainly did.
    Penelope Lively has written a memoir, to be published next month, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: a life in time. I wonder how she feels about age today.

  5. Anne

    Good lord- how I enjoyed reading this book. I found the diary account by Tom at the end of the book so moving – not because it was a soldier writing about war but because it was real!!! and the history that Claudia wrote and Jasper filmed was not real- it was glamorised- in his case- and fictionalised- by her but Tom’s account written by him at the time was the truth! And it was plain and stark and then he died.
    I thought Lisa was short changed. She was clearly more interesting than her mother realised and I thought that Claudia had missed an opportunity at not being more involved in her daughter’s life…….you and I both know how fascinating small childrens’ minds can be…..why didn’t Claudia find her daughter’s development more captivating. I have never accepted the argument that small children are boring as I think that an intelligent person -if they turn their intelligence towards observation- can see in a small child’s daily behaviour – an absolutely amazing microcosm of human intelligence. Hence Louis the other day discovering that a fling of his right hand knocked over some fabric boxes piled on top of one another just kept repeating it and repeating it with perfect concentration……it was an eureka moment in miniature.
    But I digress- this was an absorbing book and I am very sorry I have finished it!

    • Caroline

      Glad you shared my pleasure at this book. I agree about the interesting development of children, but I guess some people just don’t feel that way.
      I am not at all surprised that this book won Booker Prize. It works on several levels.
      Thanks for this coment.

  6. I re-read this recently, inspired by Cathy Rentzenbrink’s recommendation in Dear Reader and on A Good Read (R4). There was so much in the book: history, place, knowledge – I wanted to know if Penelope Lively was an historian. Claudia was not a likeable character but you couldn’t help admire her. It was reassuring to read that Lisa had a more ‘interesting’ (if it’s interesting to have a lover) life than her mother supposed, but not surprising that Claudia didn’t bother getting to know her.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I think Penelope Lively made an exceellent character here, showing how hard it was throughout her life to do the things she was suited to do, and the cost was selfishness and perhaps even neglect of her daughter. I think it’s a grand book.

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