There are many reasons why a book stays on my TBR shelf for an age. With Moon Tiger, the reason was very simple – after my Nanny Turner died in April 2014, I just couldn’t face reading this story of an old woman reflecting on her life, especially one who had ‘grown old with the century’ like Nan. So on the shelf it stayed until the other week. Nan would have been 100 years old on 17 September 2016 and, as our family reflected on her life, it seemed the right time to explore Penelope Lively’s 1987 Booker Prize-winning novel.
Claudia Hampton’s tale of her life as a war journalist and historian is completely compelling. A love story coloured by the experience of grief and its durability (‘Grief-stricken. Stricken is right; it is as though you had been felled’) is set against a fantastic account of the Second World War in North Africa (‘The speech of Lancashire, of Dorset, of the East End, of Eton and Winchester, rang around the mosques and bazaars, the Pyramids and the Citadel’), run through with anger at the injustice of those who sacrifice and those who exploit the horror:
History is disorder…death and muddle and waste. And here you sit cashing in on it…
The story could also read as a treatise on the nature of History itself, and I wish I’d been able to wheel out some of these gems during the three-hour, one-essay ‘Historical Argument and Practice’ exam they tortured us History degree finalists with:
And when you and I talk about history we don’t mean what actually happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of everywhere, all time? We mean the tidying up of this into books, the concentration of the benign historical eye upon years and places and persons…
Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre.
This lack of absolute truth is illustrated most clearly in the multi-voice description of events. Setting Claudia’s interpretation of events against that of the characters she meets on her life’s journey – her brother and his wife, her lovers (‘I dined with him on a Tuesday and we were in bed together the following Sunday’ – sounds like a Craig David song), and her neglected daughter – demonstrates the difficulty of interpreting history, which I suppose explains why my degree gave me grey hairs and dodgy eyesight.
The only part of the novel that slightly jarred was the story of her relationship with her brother that went beyond the ‘aristocracy of two’ initially described, only because it’s a bit of a shocker and I wasn’t sure how to place it. Read it and let me know what you think.
Claudia is dying so it’s not really a spoiler to say that the story does not end well. But the description of the specific moment of her passing is one of the most moving things I’ve read in a long time. I won’t replicate it here as it needs to be read in the context of the life story that precedes it, but in reading it it is impossible not to think of that final moment that awaits all of us, which is perhaps the most major unknown in all of our lives. (Oh I’m cheery this week readers. That autumnal malaise is setting in…)
My Nan’s ‘final moment’ came as she made tea in the kitchen of the home she had lived in for over 60 years ( see here), a few feet from where her husband Arthur had had his final moment thirty years earlier, as he went to change the TV channel in the living room where their children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren, had played (we suspect he was turning off Bruce Forsyth as he really could not stand him, apparently. Apologies, Brucie). On what would have been her 100th birthday, we gathered together in The Trafalgar pub in Greenwich – her original home turf, before Arthur tempted her to North London- to re-tell the often-told stories of her life. After all:
…We all survive in the heads of others. I shall survive…in Lisa’s head and in Sylvia’s and in Jasper’s and in the heads of my grandsons…and the heads of mine enemies.
For years, we had badgered her to commit these stories to print, but being the gallivanting, get-out-in-that-sunshine-and-live-in-the-moment sort of woman she was, she was never going to spend too long dwelling on the past. Instead, as we cleared her house, we found little notes here and there, snippets of stories in a long life. On reflection, Nan’s chaotic documentation of her life rather fits with Claudia’s exquisite description of the nature of the human experience:
There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.
There are many stories in Margaret Louise Ellis’s ‘pack of cards’ but one of my favourites is from her brief time in service. She was working at some posh gaff in Blackheath and the owners were going out for the day and gave her a list of chores to get on with. Problem was, the posh gaff had a massive library full of books, so Nan just read all day instead of doing the chores. ‘They didn’t ask me back after that.’ Here’s to you REBEL NAN…I hope there’s a decent library up there, gal.