The latest in a series of unexpectedly popular posts in which I complain about books I haven’t enjoyed, and why. Links to earlier editions are at the end.
Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
I’ve had a copy of Lively’s Booker-winning Moon Tiger for ages, and had to steel myself to read it, with some reluctance. I don’t usually enjoy Booker Prize winners, which are selected by a committee of random famous people from a longlist put forward by publishers who can afford to send in all the extra copies required. And, as I have grumbled elsewhere, it was a disappointment. The leading character, Claudia Hampton, is a famous non-academic historian and a war reporter. She herself is excellent, and agreeably aggressive in refusing to be nice. The times she lives through, her close relationships and love affairs, what she does in her life, all are interesting. The structure of the novel is intriguingly fragmented and reflects the novel’s theme of how history is created. But Claudia isn’t real: she feels constructed, and arranged to be shocking, not a natural human being. Was Lively trying too hard with this one? (All her other characters feel perfectly natural.) So, sorry: Moon Tiger bored me, it was an unengaging read. I can only think that it won the Booker in a dud year, or because it was felt that it was Lively’s turn, because she is a magnificent writer. I think that many people must agree with me, because Moon Tiger is the one Lively title you can be sure of finding second-hand. There is a reason why books are in charity shops in such reliably large quantities: they’re not wanted, or they’re not any good.
Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor
I’m pretty sure I tried this novel when I was a lot younger, and could not get into it at all. Scroll forward twenty-odd years, and it’s being praised all around me at a conference as seminal, marvellous, the epitome of historical writing, so I found a new copy. Nope. Still not doing anything for me that I want. I liked the seventeenth-century writing, and the cunning of Mr Hawksmoor as an architect, but I was heartily bored by the obscure descriptions of (I think) masonic ritual and satanic worship which I was expected to know about before reading a novel based on them. I think Hawksmoor is for the folks who enjoy those fat paperbacks spinning righteous conspiracy-theory drama about Rosicrucianism, and secret plots involving the right number in the right painting in the right monastery in the right phase of the moon.
John Meade Falkner, Moonfleet
My friend Ken will be saddened by this, as he is a leading light in the John Meade Falkner Society, but — again! — I’ve tried this novel before and didn’t think much of it, and here I am, trying it again, many years later. It’s a historical novel of smuggling and chases over clifftops and hidings in caves and vaults, and a girl who waits for years for the return of the boy who is accused of murdering her father (really?), but it’s sub-Stevensonian. It’s a very faithful homage to every exciting Robert Louis Stevenson episode he ever wrote, so faithful that I would much rather read Catriona and Kidnapped again than recommend this.