My latest read was a novel I bought for my wife last year: Penelope Lively’s 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. (And, yes, I did wait until my wife had read it first…)

The back cover blurb gives an idea as to what the book is about: “Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, famous writer, lies dying in hospital. But, as the nurses tend to her with quiet condescension, she is plotting her greatest work: ‘a history of the world…and in the process, my own.'”

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

And I have to say, this bold if somewhat preposterous premise immediately got my attention. Then, turning to the first page, my interest was further heightened by the sure, confident narrative voice I discovered there:

A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well – no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez… The works this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine. I’m equipped, I consider; eclecticism has always been my hallmark. That’s what they’ve said, though it has been given other names.

And so we are hastily thrown into this whirlwind account, wherein we gradually get to know all of the principle persons central to Claudia’s life. There is her brother Gordon, with whom she shares the closest of relationships; then there is Gordon’s fairly uninteresting and rather silly wife, Sylvia. Then there is Claudia’s on-off lover, Jasper, who is charming and infuriating in equal measure. Then there is their surprisingly conventional daughter, Lisa, whom Claudia perhaps never really understands. Then, at the centre of Claudia’s history, is Tom, her one true love, found – and then tragically lost – in wartime Egypt.

It is a very good read, although I think it falls somewhat short of being a truly great novel. After the opening gambit, I would have liked to have seen more world history intertwined with Claudia’s own story, to have given it slightly more depth. Also, I felt that the two most interesting relationships of the novel – that of Claudia and her brother, and that of Claudia and Tom, both petered out a little disappointingly towards the end of the novel. The finding of Tom’s wartime diary towards the end of the novel, could certainly have provided a great vehicle for an impassioned and enlightening denouement, but I felt that Lively failed to make of much of this as she could have done.

However Penelope Lively does write very well and I would certainly recommend this novel. There are several memorable passages throughout. The following is just one of several sections I could have picked; this particular piece being taken from a longer diatribe into war and its effects:

I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of war. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself. How many million shot, maimed, burned, frozen, starved, drowned? God only knows. I trust He does; He should have kept a record, if only for His own purposes. I’ve been on the fringes of two wars; I shan’t see the next. The first preoccupied me not at all; this thing called War summoned Father and took him away for ever. I saw it as some inevitable climatic effect: thunderstorm or blizzard. The second lapped me up but spat me out intact. Technically intact. I have seen war; in that sense that I have been present at wars, I have heard bombs and guns and observed their effects. And yet what I know of war seems most vivid in the head; when I lie awake at night and shudder it is not experience but knowledge that churns in the mind. 

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje