James Gault reviews Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Have you ever got about three chapters into a book and thought this is the best book I’ve read in ages? This is how I felt about this book. I was on such a high I could only ever go down. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.
The novel starts brilliantly. We meet a cantankerous, self opinionated elderly lady being attended by well-meaning but patently patronising carers. She is visited by a daughter and sister-in-law both of whom she disparages with verve and disdain. Her project, she decides, is to write her autobiography, the story of a life at the very least on a par with the history of the universe, if not even more important. What a delightful character, offering me the promise of cynical amusement and fun right to the last page.
But then it all goes wrong, with the introduction of the war. Not that I can lay the blame at the door of Adolf Hitler and World War 2. I’m afraid the author herself has to face up to the responsibility of what she does with had been, up to then, her endearing protagonist. For some inexplicable reason, the haughty and fascinating Claudia Hamilton metamorphoses into what I can only kindly define as a ‘wimp’. There in the North African desert, she is rescued by a gallant tank officer, a modern version of a knight in armour, and there follows a whirlwind holiday style romance where the pair moon over each other and succeed in communicating nothing of either intellectual or emotional interest. Mercifully, the love-struck lady is saved from a life of lobotomised inanity by the timely death in action of her lover.
Once the bereaved ‘Juliet’ gets over the grief of her lost love, she thankfully recovers some of her earlier vim and vigour, but by this time this particular reader has become very wary. Sure enough, she slips back into maudlin mediocrity when she discovers, many years later, her war-time lover’s diary recovered from his dead body and returned to his family.
However, this novel is a Booker prize winner and it is not undeserving of the award. The characterisation is outstanding, even if, in my view, Lively allows her great skill in bringing interesting personalities to life to be overridden by an inexplicable desire to submerge them in a soppy love story. It’s also worth while paying close attention to an interesting narrative technique, where she recounts the same incident from the point of view of two or more of the characters involved. And she does this in such an enigmatic way that we wonder whether we’re seeing the real views of different characters, or perhaps the way that the main character imagines others would see it. There is a touch of genius about this novel, but... Read it if you like gooey romance, but even if you don’t, read it anyway, just to see if my disparaging remarks have any merit.