I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman.
I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.
On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital.
‘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)
On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)
These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.
The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.
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, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. 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. She lived a life that is challenging.
Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.
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)
It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.
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. (206)
Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.
These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.
Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)
In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go).
And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.
How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018
Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.
The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here.