Two points of view on `Moon Tiger,' a prizewinning British novel

On this page are two reviews of the 1987 Booker Prize-winning novel, Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively (Grove Press, New York, Andr'e Deutsch, London; 208 pages, $15.95). The Booker Prize is Britain's most important annual award for fiction and reflects established literary values. One review looks at the concepts behind the book, the other at the characters; together they suggest something about the Booker Prize - and about the enduring tensions within the novel as a form of art.

`MOON TIGER' unfolds the life of an ambitious, intelligent, beautiful, egotistical woman, recalled as she lies dying in a London hospital. Journalist, war correspondent, author of best-selling books of popular history, Claudia Hampton looks back on a long and eventful life.

She ponders the power of history in shaping the course of individual existences, and she reflects on the personal relationships she has formed - or failed to form. Most have been unsatisfactory: The special closeness between Claudia and her brother Gordon grew into an ongoing friendly rivalry that alienated Gordon's haplessly ``ordinary'' wife, Sylvia.

Jasper, Claudia's one-time lover and the father of her child, was as uninterested as Claudia in forming any ties that might bind. To Claudia's critical eye, her daughter, Lisa, seems disappointingly ``ordinary,'' too. Only once, in a romantic, doomed ``brief encounter'' with a British officer named Tom, whom she met while covering the Egyptian desert war in 1941, has Claudia ever found what these days is called a meaningful relationship.

Claudia's version of events is supplemented by brief but effective splices of other viewpoints: Lisa's, Jasper's, and Tom's. It is a little hard to pity Claudia's lost ``true love'' when one suspects that her propensity for finding everyone other than herself and brother Gordon ``ordinary'' would probably have extended to include wholesome, decent Tom in that dreaded category, had he survived the war.

And it is even harder to sympathize with a character who considers herself so extraordinary when she actually sounds like at least a dozen other ambitious, intelligent, beautiful, self-regarding fictional heroines.

Lively is a skilled writer, and this novel is a very competent, professional piece of writing, certainly unexceptionable, but also, it must be said, unexceptional - almost ordinary. Why it won Britain's Booker Prize, up against formidable competition from the likes of Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing, is frankly a puzzle.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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