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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Lively's Moon Tiger is good but not great

In the end, Penelope Lively's Booker-winning 1987 novel, Moon Tiger, is a good but not a great novel and here's why. Good: terrific accounts of battlefield scenes, including a strange confluence of boredom and terror; good and efficient account of the protagonist, Claudia, at the end of her life reflecting back on the key moments or epochs in her life, including in particular her love affair with a British soldier (Tom) who dies in battle; smart and effective use of a narrative device that more often wrecks a good novel rather than heightens and enhances the drama, that is, multiple narrative points of view and story told out of chronological sequence; clear, non-histrionic writing throughout; smart account of the prejudice that women writers faced, and probably still face. But what keeps this from being a great novel is her inability to tie the strands together and bring the narrative to a meaningful conclusion. There are many references throughout to Claudia's intention to write a "history of the world" (she is a popular, non-academic historian), and we kind of get that what she means by this is that telling the story of a life is in some ways like telling the story of the history of the world, as world history is not, in her view (and Tolstoy's) made up of grand events but of the lives of people and families. Great, but she never capitalizes on this theme: Is Claudia grandiose, even delusional, in her ambitions? Or does she succeed? If so we (I) don't see it. Further, the narrative concludes w/ Claudia's receiving via mail Tom's war diaries, which her wrote to explain to her what battle was like, and that end abruptly w/ his death (and a note appended by his sister). Well that would be fine if the diary she receives would disclose some kind of mystery or plot element, which it doesn't - just provides us with details of his war experience. Perhaps the point is that he's as good a writer as she, or better? I really don't know - the novel just seems to wind down at the end (as we also meet a character, Laszlo, a Polish emigre, who was apparently important in her life - a little late to intro a new character unless he, too, carries some weight for the plot, which he doesn't - the Laszlo chapter could be cut w/ no loss). So I wish this good novel could have been better - though it was good enough to win the Booker (ha - as we know, the awarding of the Booker is a result of lots of payback, log-rolling, and compensation for past mistakes. Maybe they confused Penelope Lively with Penelope Fitzgerald).

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