Moon Tiger: ferociously complicated – and fantastically readable

Penelope Lively’s title takes its name from a brand of mosquito coil, which also suggests its circling narrative and the spiralling nature of memory

In a 2001 interview on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub, Penelope Lively explained that the curious object that gives Moon Tiger its title was the name for a mosquito repellent used during her childhood in Egypt. Here’s the evocative description from the novel itself: “The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.”

This description of the ashy spiral is so powerful because it comes as the two lovers, Claudia and Tom, are sharing a last snatched night in Cairo during the second world war. As the coil burns beside them, Claudia presses Tom for details of his life, in an attempt to seal him in her mind. With Tom about to return to the frontline, Lively writes: “And oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending. Please may it have a happy ending. The Moon Tiger is almost entirely burned away now; its green spiral is mirrored by an ash spiral in the saucer.” It is symbolic of the march of time, the fallibility of human impressions and the fragility of memory.

I think that Lively uses the image masterfully, even if her memory is correct in the Radio 4 interview and it was her unconscious mind that did the hard lifting. Re-reading the novel again last week, the Moon Tiger seemed symbolic of something else again: the narrative structure of the novel itself and the way memories live in our minds.

Most of the story is told from inside Claudia Hampton’s head, as she lies in bed, dying of cancer, mulling over and remembering her life. Her memory doesn’t stretch back in a straight line. It constantly revolves around a central point, the defining moment of her life: her brief connection with Tom. She spins through different slides from the past in whatever order seems most pressing to her. There’s an emotional logic to the way the different scenes are presented, but most normal chronological conventions disappear into a vortex.

Except we are also always made aware of the forward march of time. In the present tense, where Claudia lies in a hospital, she’s heading in a very definite direction. Which, in my new Moon Tiger analogy, is where the burning eye fits in, moving inexorably towards extinction, even if everything else remains spiralling.

It’s a persuasive image, but doesn’t encompass all of the novel’s enjoyable complications. The novel doesn’t just spiral; it often changes tense and points of view, moves us from the present day to the past, from events recalled to events relived and from events as Claudia sees and saw them to events seen through other eyes. Claudia herself supplies another set of images for all these refractions and contradictions, when she says her view of history is “kaleidoscopic”:

“There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and reshuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”

That sounds dizzying. And if you step back and try to think about the way Lively builds her story, the effect is vertiginous. Which makes it sound as if I’m describing the structure of a ferociously complicated and fearlessly experimental novel. I probably am. But that doesn’t reflect the reading experience. One of the finest tricks the book pulls off is to make you quickly forget how daring and different it is. Penelope Lively might have jettisoned many of the usual conventions, but not at the expense of old-fashioned storytelling. There’s a burning light that guides you through the darkness, all the way to the end – not unlike the Moon Tiger.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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