At 70 something, Claudia Hampton is at a facility dying of cancer where she decides to write a history of the world, in essence her history. Yet this is not to be a boring tome, but a kaleidoscope of memories switching back and forth over time, like a shuffled deck of cards, as thoughts of past events flit through her mind. One of the nurses asks the doctor if she was a somebody due to her high handed behaviors. With an offhand remark he responds that it appears so, some sort of writer in her day.
And what a “day” that was. Born in England in 1910, losing her father in the first world war, Claudia and her brother Gordon are a handful that their mother can’t or won’t control, so they forge their own path, constantly competing even on the minutest of levels. At the age of ten she asks God to kill her brother so she can win a foot race and when her brother is victorious she decides to become an agnostic. Constantly bickering, the two are as close as two siblings can be, with Gordon becoming a renowned economist and Claudia achieving acclaim through her writing as both a journalist and an author.
During World War II she finds herself in Cairo, Egypt, a lone women trying to get a scoop at the front lines even though her gender precludes her from gaining proximity to the action. Through a series of events while she is nevertheless attempting such a feat, she meets the love of her life, Tom Southern, and the two spend precious time together visiting the sights during the day, reserving the evenings for romantic rendezvous’ whenever Tom can get leave from his duties as an Armored Tank Commander. Their affair is not destined to survive the war, and Claudia ends up back in London with a new lover, Jasper, a half Russian aristocrat. Through a series of serendipitous events, she ends up impressing an editor who bolsters her career. There’s a child, no marriage but an arrangement of sorts, a movie about Cortez, a harrowing car ride with a renowned actor, a quasi adoption, and an ongoing narcissistic relationship with her brother alongside a barely tolerable nod to his wife, Sylvia.
Through the various flashbacks as well as visits from her relatively few well wishers, we get a glimpse of the woman she once was – someone who commanded attention through her manner of dress, comportment, wit, and style retaining the ability to stun even as she grew older until during her last days on earth she relives these moments, summing up the pieces of her life (thus immortalizing her soul).
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1987. This book was often referred to as the “housewife’s choice”, but it actually has a lot of charm for any reader. My favorite aspect about literature is authors who have a unique way of presenting themselves, authentic rather than pretentious, who know how to shape a phrase in such a way as to enchant the reader. Lively is just such an author. I delighted in the idea of a kaleidoscope approach to ones past, plus there were numerous witty remarks imbedded in the text which led me to smile with a chuckle or two. Then, to top things off, there were some interesting tidbits of information. The details of the interactions between Cortez and the Aztecs was fascinating, as was the grittiness of the fighting in Egypt, a location of World War II which we sometimes neglect with our focus on Japan or Germany. Yes, the warfront extended to Africa and those interactions have a direct impact on our current political climate.
Lively, who was born in Cairo in 1933, speaks from first hand knowledge vividly describing the desert, transporting the reader into an almost virtual experience of those war torn times. Although Lively calls this an anti-memoir, using her life as a prompt to create this fictional story, I can’t help but believe that there’s a significant piece of herself wrapped up in Claudia’s persona peeking out through the words. While the majority of the book was written from a narrative/third person viewpoint, several scenes were repeated through the eyes of one or two of the other characters, each who sees a specific event from a slightly different perspective (like looking at life through that ever changing kaleidoscope). Four and a half stars.