Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

"Moon Tiger" by Penelope Lively (Penguin, 1988)

Something by this author that I once read put me off reading her. Time to make amends.

The main character, Claudia, is on her deathbed. She's bright and not always coherent, which makes for fast exchanges and intercutting. Paragraph 1 is 3rd person. Paragraph 2 is 1st person - "eclecticism has always been my hallmark. That's what they've said, though it has been given other names. Claudia Hampton's range is ambitious, some might say imprudent: my enemies. Miss Hampton's bold conceptual sweep: my friends". Then we get a rationale of the style -

The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I've always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out (p.2)

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally ... So, since my story is also theirs, they too must speak - Mother, Gordon, Jasper ... Except that of course I have the last word. The historian's privilege (p.5-6)

The PoV-switching continues throughout the book. Sometimes a paragraph is followed by a paragraph describing the same events from a different viewpoint. The viewpoint may differ slightly (both 3rd person privileged, but from 2 people's viewpoints) or the viewpoints might be 1st and 3rd person.

And over there if I am not mistaken is this chap who might wangle me a ride up to the front if I play it right
She smiles - the glossy lipsticked smile of the times. She approaches his table - a neat figure in white linen, bright coppery hair, high-heeled red sandals, bare sunburned legs - and he rises, pulls out a chair, clicks his fingers at the suffragi.
And looks appreciatively at the legs, the hair, the outfit which is not the get-up of the average woman press correspondent.

At least it is to be assumed that that is what he was doing since he tried later to get me into bed (p.69)

There are passages where Claudia's talks to 6 year old Lisa (her daughter), told from Claudia's viewpoint, then Lisa's. When Lisa appears as an adult we hear for the first time a voice that might not be imagined by the main character. Lisa is unaware of her mother's love for Tom Southern, a soldier she met in Egypt. Her mother is unaware of Lisa's extra-marital lover.

Claudia has opinions, and also many theories. There's a private/public theme that re-appears - history vs personal memory "This, you see, is the point of all this. Egocentric Claudia is once again subordinating history to her own puny existence. Well - don't we all?" (p.29). She plans to write a history of the world, starting perhaps with primordial soup. On p.56 she wonders how to fit God in - "God should have a starring role in my history of the world".

The writing becomes dense at times -

I like to pick out the shards of opinion that link your minds to mine - a few sturdy views about the rule of law, distribution of property, decent behaviour and regard for one's fellow men. But the shards are few; I am peering for the most part into a mysterious impenetrable fog in which what I would call intolerance is sanctified as belief, in which you can cheerfully spike the head of a slaughtered Indian outside your fort, in which you endure privations that would kill me off in a week or so but in which also you believe in witchcraft, in which you do not merely believe but know that there is a life hereafter (p.29-30)

WWII Egypt features strongly. A moon tiger is a mosquito coil, whose glow at the tip turns all it touches to ash.

  • "Past and present do not so much co-exist in the Nile valley as cease to have any meaning" (p.80); "that scenery in which the lush vegetable borders of the nile ended so abruptly that you stepped from fields to desert in one pace; in which a crumbling monument might be Greek, Roman, pharaonic, medieval. christian, Muslim; in which illiterate peasants with a life expectancy of thirty lived in shanty houses set up between the soaring columns of temples inscribed with the complex mythologies of three thousand years before. There was no chronology to the place, and no logic" (p.89).
  • "Already the sand is starting to digest the broken vehicles, the petrol cans, the tangles of wire; a few more storms and they will sink beneath it" (p.96)
  • "you can buy postcards, flywhisks, a ride on a donkey called Telephone, Chocolate or Whiskey-Soda, a guided climb to the top of the Great Pyramid, which is studded all over with striving figures" (p.108)

Towards the end there are hints that her relationship to her brother was unusually close - "Incest is closely related to narcissism. When Gordon and I were at our most self-conscious - afire with the sexuality and egotism of late adolescence - we looked at one another and saw ourselves translated ... Other people became, for a while, for a couple of contemptuous years, a proletariat. We were an aristocracy of two" (p.136-7)

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