“On the bedside is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil that burns slowly all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of green ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing, simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer.”
When I read these words my eyes fell on the Good Knight coil by my bedside…and I looked at it with completely new eyes. Imagine, this taken-for-granted necessity being described so eloquently. Even more interesting was the fact that this description refers to the period of the first World War II in Egypt when mosquito repellent coils were widely used and sold under the name of Moon Tiger. So much for my thinking that Good Knight was a very desi product of our times!
The revelation came as I was recently reading a book by the same name. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was published in 1987 and won the Booker Prize that year.
Moon Tiger is the tale told by Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, once-famous writer of history books, who lies dying in hospital. As she lies there she is conjuring in her mind ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Gradually she re-creates the rich mosaic of her life and times peopled with those near and dear to her. In doing so she confronts her own, personal history, unearthing the passions and pains that have defined her life.
The most poignant of these is her memories of her time in Egypt as a war correspondent and her brief affair with her one great love, both found and lost in wartime Egypt. The description of the Moon Tiger that burns all night, slowly dropping its coil into ash, forms both the central image of the story and its structure.
Penelope Lively, an acclaimed novelist and children’s writer was herself born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 and brought up there. In this novel she weaves an ‘exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a haunting story of loss and desire’. Moon Tiger is also about the ways in which we are connected to people, places, and history.
I have always enjoyed reading Penelope Lively, but this book soars above them all in terms of the language, the flow and the sensitive journey through the landscape of the mind. The title itself is ‘a metaphor for the persistence of some experiences and the burning present-ness of some memories’.
Coincidentally I discovered this book this year—2018—the same year that the Golden Man Booker list, which chose one book for each of the five decades that the Booker Prize has been running, announced that Moon Tiger was the chosen book for the decade of the 1980s.