Book Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Some time ago, I had a look at my book reviews, noting the gender of the authors. It was a stark revelation to me how few books I’ve read by women. Does that indicate my reading is sexist? I would posit that it isn’t, but I may expand on that in another post. The point of this as introduction is that I made a conscious choice to pick those books from my reading list by female authors and push them up the order. So while this has been on my radar for some time (when I checked, I had included it on a list I wrote back in November 2010) I picked it from a local bookshop along with the more recent Night Circus by Erin Mortgenstern – which is the next fiction book I’ll review, though probably not for a little while.

So with the preamble over, what of Moon Tiger itself? I have to say, I found the book very difficult to get into. The characters are very poorly defined and there is scant all plot. The idea seems to be that an old woman on her deathbed decides to recount various episodes from her life. These episodes are then told in a very cold manner. Though various characters recur one doesn’t have a chance to get to know them properly. It reminded me very much of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though it was less pornographic than that.

The woman in question is Claudia Hampton. With one or two exceptions, the episodes she recounts from her life are devoid of place and time, so the reader is left none the wiser if a jump of 10 years or more is made. She might even have gone back in time, but I honestly don’t know. It may be a problem that I have with winners of the Booker prize – as with Midnight’s Children, it just doesn’t get going.

As much as one might try to like it, Claudia’s character is just underdeveloped and relatively soulless. Since the book is her memoirs, that centre is just lacking. If you enjoyed those other novels referred to above, then you may well like this. But if you’ve read them and were nonplussed by them, then it may be best to avoid it.

The only possible recovery for the book is if Lively wants us to view Claudia with the same cold indifference that Claudia views the rest of the world. If that is her intention than she succeeds marvelously in her creation of a wholly unlikeable character. That is not to say Claudia is detestable; she’s not a pleasant person, but she’s not a villain either. An endorsement on the back of the book says it “leaves its traces in the air long after you’ve put it away.” I couldn’t disagree more; it is mediocre work which is instantly forgettable.

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