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  • Recollection and Revision: Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger
  • John Glendening (bio)


despite being awarded the title Dame Penelope Lively in 2012 and having won prestigious literary awards during a long career, outside of Britain Lively’s fiction is less well known than her resumé would seem to warrant. Furthermore, her novels, despite being well reviewed, have received relatively little critical attention.1 A major exception is the Booker-Prizewinning Moon Tiger, which pursues many of Lively’s favourite themes but [End Page 67] is more ambitious than her other novels, not only by being centred on a larger-than-life personality but by dramatically entangling her in world history, especially through her experience as a World War ii war correspondent. Evidencing Lively’s life-long fascination with history—her area of study at Oxford, from which she graduated in 1954—Moon Tiger, like her other novels, not only features a protagonist compelled to investigate history, personal and collective, but represents how memory captures or distorts the past, how it permeates the present and projects the future, and how it helps fashion personal reality and self-identity. Lively acknowledges that we are all bound by chronological time and yet are capable—despite the power of forgetting—of reconstructing and changing its significance through memory in concert with other mental faculties. Over a forty-year career her publications have incorporated these themes. They appear in her first adult novel, The Road to Lichfield, a 1977 finalist for the Booker Prize, and in the most recent of her twenty-two adult novels and short story collections, as well as in some of her thirty-one children’s books.

Lively contends that recollection, as mediated by language and particularly by narrative, lies at the core of human experience, including individuals’ sense of themselves. Indeed, it is doubtful that anyone lacking short- and long-term memory, as in the case of advanced Alzheimer’s, would have the resources to express much of a self or constitute one in the first place, no matter how many rudimentary habits or visceral responses survive. Lively’s recent memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish (2013), articulates her ideas about memory, but they are enacted and coalesce most powerfully in Moon Tiger. This novel perhaps is particularly worth revisiting now because, as the most assertive and successful employment of its author’s long-time concerns, it could provide a illustrative point of entry for retrospection of her overall accomplishment. Lively is eighty-seven, and her last novel, How It All Began, was published in 2011. There may not be another.

Facing her own death, the protagonist of Moon Tiger, elderly historian Claudia Hampton, recollects personal and world history with the desire, on the one hand, to assert her positive self-conception and, on the other, to understand those elements of the past that do not entirely fit her self-narrative. What results is a coming to terms with dissonant aspects of her life formerly suppressed and, in consequence, the ability to face death with equanimity.

Arriving at this condition, however, is not straightforward because Claudia often experiences as well as characterizes memory as “kaleidoscopic,” a term Lively has used throughout her career to describe one aspect [End Page 68] of what researchers have labeled episodic or autobiographical memory.2 Although one can reproduce past experiences in orderly sequences, they more often manifest in terms of non-linearity, complexity, unanticipated associations, and changeability. Broken into narrative chunks, sometimes inclusive of different points of view, and following no consistent chronology, Moon Tiger captures the disorderly aspects of a kaleidoscope but also recognizes that a kaleidoscope continually generates new patterns and expressions of order. Gradually, the postmodern structural aspects of the novel, through a combination of Claudia’s intentions and the unpredictable emergence of memories, generate order as she circles around and finally discloses what is both central to her life story and most challenging to her self-understanding. Faced with death, Claudia and the novel ultimately gain coherence and control through her willingness to re-experience the implications of the novel’s title.


The first sentence of Moon Tiger consists of an abrupt announcement by its audacious and, it appears, supremely...


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pp. 67-81
Launched on MUSE
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