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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively




After a long break from reading prize-winning novels I’ve been enticed back into the Booker fold as the result of a three-pronged seduction. First, a friend asked me if I’d read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013). I hadn’t, so I did.  Second, I discovered the Booker Prize website and newsletter while searching for the progress of Paul Harding’s This Other Eden in the 2023 prize year. That website led me to an amazing Facebook group composed of people who read, consider and comment on books that won the Booker Prize.

Low and behold, I found myself reading more Booker winners. I dug George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) out of the ‘to be read’ pile on my bedside table; I bought Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) as being the ideal long book for a long flight; I dithered over Prophet Song (2023) as promising to be way too depressing and doom-laden. Then, with a Booker road-map in my head, I turned to my bookshelf.


Moon Tiger? Had I ever read that? Was it actually an unread book that had snuck its way onto the shelf? Its cover claimed it had won the Booker in 1987, back before the days of  prophetic doom, experimental formats and incessant rain. Although, judging by the date Moon Tiger was written (and by the blurb: Claudia Hampton – beautiful, famous, independent – is dying) the book could well be another depressingly familiar revelation about World War II. The cover was unmistakably Egypt.


I was half way through before a light turned on. “Imshi”. It was a plunge into memory; the same light had flared when I’d read Moon Tiger in the past. “Imshi”, my father said when he’d had enough of us kids. It was a little piece of Arabic he’d picked up while in Egypt in 1945, collecting up unmarked drums of liquid from the desert and determining their contents.


A romance lies at the centre of Moon Tiger; a romance that plays out in a few days in the bizarre limbo that is colonial Cairo at the height of the desert war.


Like all respectable European capitals Cairo had a zoo.

“The hippos share a small lake with flamingos and assorted duck; a keeper stands alongside with a bucketful of potatoes - five piastres buys a couple of potatoes which you then hurl into the pink maw of the hippo. The adult hippos wallow with their mouths permanently agape while two young ones, who have not yet got the idea, cruise fretfully up and down, occasionally struck by inaccurate potatoes.

‘Like an exotic form of hoop-la,’ says Tom. ‘Do you want a go?’

‘Do you realise that potatoes are a luxury in this place?’ says Claudia. ‘ I can’t remember when I last ate a potato myself. We use yams. Mashed yam, roast yam, boiled yam….’

“Oh dear,’ says Tom. ‘Is indignation going to spoil your day? At least the hippos are happy, presumably.’

But Claudia knows that nothing can spoil her day…”

And now you will be drawn into this story.  I say ‘now’ since you may not have been before. Beautiful, famous, independent Claudia, who is recalling her life as she ekes out her last days in hospital, has so far been self-absorbed, intolerant, neglectful, arrogant and frequently cruel Claudia. She is not the sort of person you’d want to know. But when she reveals what Tom has been in her life she becomes poignant, passionate, eloquent, resilient and astute.


At the start of this newsletter I took a swipe at experimental formats, at the modern Booker winners like Lincoln in the Bardo and The Luminaries and implied Moon Tiger would take you back to a time when a novel’s format was more trustworthy. (Eleanor Catton was two years old when Moon Tiger won the Booker). But take a close look at that passage I quoted. It’s a scene that the narrator, the old Claudia, has been plunged back into. She’s seeing it with the crystalline clarity of morphine fueled vision. To achieve this effect of immediacy in distance Lively uses the present tense with a distant third person point of view. It’s risky. It can annoy a reader with its feel of a lack of sophistication. But you probably didn’t notice, because smart, acerbic Claudia is right there, being witty about yams and the English diet. Then Lively switches you right back into a first-person-type insight, but what’s on the page is still in the third person. Old and dying, Claudia is remembering this scene. She could think, ‘I knew nothing could spoil my day’, but that’s not what Lively does. She writes, “But Claudia knows that nothing can spoil her day”. All the way through this book Lively plays with tense, point of view and dialogue in a way which is thoroughly experimental but because it serves both the character and the plot you’ll probably be surprised when, and if, you notice it happening.


And while reading the passage you probably imagined it was your sensibilities that conjoured up  the discomfort over the zoo-thing, and that your modern education detected the odour of colonialism. Look again and you’ll see it is Lively’s skill that put that there.



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