Saturday, June 12, 2021

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is among the finest living British novelists. She moves with ease from the grand sweep of events to the telling details of select lives, and in Moon Tiger she steps from an external view of a character, to her thoughts and reactions, and into the mind of her conversant, seeing an event from an omniscient view, then through each participant. For this novel the technique is fitting: Claudia Hampton is an historian though not a dry one – she stirs up controversy, not least because she is good-looking and unattached, but also because she never hesitates to take a contrarian view of “settled events” – Cortez and Montezuma, Napoleon, Marshal Tito, the Paleolithic era… 

During WWII she works as a journalist in Cairo; in her milieu women are vastly outnumbered by young men. Talking her way onto a transport, she travels into the desert where soldiers are mustering against Rommel’s forces. Somewhere out there is her young man, the one who will not come back, whose death frees her to live independently, to build a fulfilling life without partnership or parenthood. 

“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.” 

This book is also about the end of life. In the story’s present, Claudia lies in a hospital room, body failing and mind wandering. We are privy to her thoughts, as she writes “the history of the world” which coincides with her world of studies and experience. In flashbacks we meet the few people close to her, though she is coy, revealing slowly, almost reluctantly, her deepest secrets. For she is secretive. Her daughter knows nothing of the love of her life, not even his name, and as Claudia dies she tells the reader, perhaps because otherwise that love dies with her unknown. But she doesn’t tell Lisa. Little wonder the younger woman, raised by her grandmothers, feels so distant: all her life, Claudia has kept her further than arms-length even as she makes occasional nurturing gestures to others. 

The web of family scarcely exists, or is woven too tight. Claudia and her year-older brother Gordon are as close – and closed – as twins, shutting out even their mother. The bond continues through their lives – his marriage to a devoted supportive wife, her decade-long affair (resulting in Lisa) with a dashing half-Russian. Gordon works his way up in the Foreign Service while Claudia patches together books, a standing column in a respected paper, occasional professorships, living with as little compromise as seems possible. But finally, that makes no difference, or not enough: death awaits. And those secrets we carry, they die with us.