Analysis (Magill Book Reviews)
Despite its history of wars, brutality, and human loss, MOON TIGER does not oppress its heroine or reader with the weight of suffering, but rather charms their minds and expands their hearts with an elevating sense of unbounded possibilities. Claudia fosters this expansion through her adventurous spirit, her desire to create “alternative history” on the basis of emotional transformations that do not result in replacing one intellectual mythology with another merely for the sake of change.
The emotional core of the novel is Claudia’s brief love affair in Egypt with a young tank commander, Tom Southern, who is later killed in action. Rather than progressing in linear fashion the novel circles around the still point of this idyllic romance, a point that transcends the boundaries of time and space--as do all the sacred points of human experience. Claudia’s thoughts and memories intermingle with the voices of the other characters to create an emotionally coherent and optimistic vision of human existence.
MOON TIGER unfolds through a series of dramatic scenes that give the novel a poetic intensity reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. While each scene is apparently autonomous and often presented twice from different perspectives, the effect is not one of disturbance, disorientation, or chaos. While Claudia initially believes that history is disorder by definition, the novel counteracts this belief by creating a powerful dialectic between point and infinity, between the individual and the universal, which has the effect of expanding the awareness from disorderly conventional boundaries toward an open sense of perfect order--as in Claudia’s experience at the end of the novel of being “filled with elation, a surge of joy, of well-being, of wonder.”
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. May 5, 1988, p. 20.
Contemporary Review. CCLI, July, 1987, p. 45.
The Economist. October 24, 1987, p. 107.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 1, 1988, p. 148.
London Review of Books. IX, May 21, 1987, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 8, 1988, p. 3.
New Statesman. CXIII, May 8, 1987, p. 23.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 17, 1988, p. 9.
The New Yorker. LXIV, August 8, 1988, p. 84.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, February 12, 1988, p. 71.
Time. CXXXI, May 2, 1988, p. 86.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 15, 1987, p. 515.
The Wall Street Journal. March 22, 1988, p. 32.
Moon Tiger (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
In Penelope Lively’s 1984 novel, According to Mark, the hero, a literary biographer, observes the impact of social and political change on his own life and notes that when one’s own doings are “interwoven with the coarser and more indestructible fabric of history,” the movement of time is given “a grander name than it seems to deserve when one is part of it.”
The heroine of Moon Tiger, Lively’s tenth novel for adults, is a historian not a biographer, and she is seldom comforted by her awareness of the complex relationship between personal experience and the grander forces that shape external events. Neverthless, she too is aware that it is only through the complex interweaving of memory and history that a simulation of the texture of reality can be created. Years of research have taught her that subjective and theoretically objective or impersonal sources are in fact inseparable: “I’m writing a history of the world. ... And in the process, my own.”
The task has some urgency. Claudia Hampton is an old woman when the book begins, bedridden, incoherent, dying. A writer who scorned the conventional in her life as well as in her art, she is writing history in her head, struggling to wrest a shape from her own experiences as she struggled in the past with the inchoate and resistant facts dredged up in her research. While nurses change her sheets and talk around her—“Was she someone?” they ask one another—she is delving into her memories, analyzing perspectives. Can the rise and fall of ancient Memphis or modern Czechoslovakia be traced in this history of a single human being? Is the gap between individual consciousness and the means available to record it fixed and unbridgeable? What the doctors and nurses see is a weakening body in a bed; what the gathering friends and relatives see is the reflection of an image created from their own experience; what Claudia records is the turbulent, seething mass of her own historical experience.
A few figures and facts emerge almost immediately from the primordial morass of early memory. Claudia’s mother was unimportant to her; her father, who died in World War I, is a barely remembered shadow. Only her brother Gordon, a year older, a sparring partner and a twin of sorts, has any reality. He is the standard against whom all other males will be measured. A brilliant economist whose theories affected the lives of African tribesmen and European farmers, Gordon has been dead for five years when the book begins, but he is alive in Claudia’s mind—far more alive in most ways than his widow Sylvia, who was uncomprehendingly jealous of Claudia when her husband was alive and who now visits Claudia to exercise her vague and resentful pity on the irritable figure on the bed.
To Claudia, Sylvia is pathetic and dull. Yet is Claudia’s picture of her sister-in-law a valid one? The materials used by the historian, Claudia reminds the reader in her wanderings, are simply the biased and incomplete fragments that have survived by accident or design. It soon becomes clear that the real subject of Moon Tiger is not Claudia Hampton but the nature of history: how it is created, how it is recorded, how it is read. The heroine’s life, her passions and affairs, are presented in the guise of straightforward autobiography, but the reader is invited to gauge the accuracy of the narrator’s observations by examining scenes from several points of view—as they were seen by Gordon, for example, or by someone else—a narrative device that adds a provocative uncertainty, altogether appropriate to a historical memoir, to the otherwise straightforward narrative structure.
Early in Moon Tiger, Claudia remembers a visit in the United States...
(The entire section is 1527 words.)