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Book Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

“Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms.”

These are the words of protagonist Claudia Hampton, an elderly English journalist, dying of cancer in a London hospital. This Booker Prize winner is an account of Claudia’s life. The title Moon Tiger refers to a brand of mosquito coil that burned beside Claudia and her lover Tom in a Cairo bedroom during World War II. Soon after, Tom is killed in action. But Claudia’s life–and her own personal history–continues to the full. The mosquito coil is a metaphor for the book “a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitos, dropping away into lengths of grey ash.” As our life burns bright, our memories become ash.

The author Penelope Lively uses multiple voices with ease and style–sometimes the same scene replayed from a different perspective–to give the sense that we all have filters, we all remember things differently and versions of history are not always aligned. As Claudia reflects, “The voice of history is of course composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard.”

Claudia isn’t a particularly loveable character. She is caustic, narcissistic and dismissive, and keeps her daughter Lisa at arms length. That said, you have to admire Claudia for her wit, wisdom and courage. She’s irresistibly interesting. It’s a tough book, there’s no tiptoeing around reality and the horrors of war, life and loss. Towards the end of the book it becomes apparent that time and age have created a distance between Claudia and her lover, Tom: she no longer knows this person she was in love with and her own death is imminent.

There is a vast amount of military research adding relevant historic detail and bringing credibility to the story and theme. However, less military detail in the middle of the book (as Claudia travels through the desert) and towards the end (in Tom’s diary entries written just before he was killed) wouldn't take anything away from the story. While it was necessary and significant to provide Tom’s perspective, fewer words would have achieved the same effect. As far as I’m concerned that was the book's only fault.

The book has been dismissed by critics as a ‘women’s book’ but I think that’s an unfair label, and more a reflection of unconscious bias than anything else. Although written twenty years ago the underlying message remains relevant: that all humans are fallible and producing one true objective history is impossible. I would definitely recommend this book. It is beautifully and (mostly) concisely written, yet evoking raw emotions through vivid descriptions and what is left unsaid.

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