Blog Tour/Book Review: The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie

When Anne at Random Things Tours contacted me about taking part in the blog tour for The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie, I’ll confess it was the gorgeous cover as much as the book description that made me want to sign up to read and review it.  I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed and you can read my review below.

Do check out the tour banner at the bottom of this post to see the other great book bloggers taking part in the tour.

The Pagoda TreeAbout the Book

Love, loss, fate, exile: a tale of two cultures colliding in 18th-century India.

Tamil Nadu, southern India, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple. She is instructed in dance, the mystical arts and lovemaking. It is expected she will be chosen as a courtesan for the prince himself.

But as Maya comes of age, India is on the cusp of change and British dominance has risen to new heights. Far from home the East India Company is acting like a country in its own right and the British troops are more of a rabble than the King’s army. The prince is losing his power and the city is sliding into war. Maya is forced to flee her ancestral home and heads to the bustling port city of Madras, where East and West collide.

In this new home, Maya captivates all who watch her dance, including Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune. But their love is forbidden and comes at enormous cost.

Praise for The Pagoda Tree

  • ‘A novel to be savoured… Its layering, the unravelling of the story, the subtext of the fortunes made and lost on cotton and silk, the evocative descriptions of saris themselves are all part of [its] tapestry.’ (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • ‘Women’s stories are rarely told in history, nor particularly honoured. The Pagoda Tree offers a powerful, sensual perspective on a time of great transformation in India.’ (Sarah Macdonald, author of Holy Cow)
  • ‘Claire Scobie’s seductive prose and immaculate layering of period detail capture India at her most exotic.’ (Susan Kurosawa, The Australian travel editor & author of Coronation Talkies)
  • ‘A rich and enthralling story handled with great skill by someone with a profound understanding of her material.’ (David Roach, screenwriter and film director, Beneath Hill 60 and Red Obsession)
  • ‘[The Pagoda Tree] offers new ways of seeing the past.’ (Canberra Times)
  • ‘A story told with great panache.’ (Country Style)

Format: Hardcover, ebook, paperback (416 pp.)    Publisher: Unbound
Published: 26th July 2018 (paperback) Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links* ǀ  ǀ (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Pagoda Tree on Goodreads

My Review

In her fascinating essay at the end of the book, ‘In Search of The Pagoda Tree’, Claire Scobie confides that while writing the book she was conscious that ‘the European men kept wanting to dominate the narrative, just as they did in the archives’.  She needn’t have worried because, to my mind, the female characters in the book are front and centre stage throughout and it is their feelings and experiences that resonated most strongly with this reader.   I loved the way the book reveals the details of their daily lives and the religious and cultural rituals that bind the women together.  It’s a way of life in which the beauty, artistry and cycles of the female body are celebrated.

In comparison, the male characters seem diminished, not because they aren’t finely drawn (they are) but because they seem unworthy of the women with whom they become involved.  In their own way, the two main male characters – Walter Sutcliffe and Thomas Pearce – are constrained by past experiences, financial obligations and social expectations.    As the book progresses, Walter manages to fight against these constraints and plays what at the time seems an incidental part in Maya’s story but which will turn out to be much more significant in retrospect.    I found I could less easily understand or forgive Thomas’s actions, especially towards the end of the book.  I hoped he might have been able to absorb some of Maya’s strength of character and resist more robustly the conventions of the day.

One exception to the generally unattractive male characters is the wise Rao, who can see beyond the seemingly conflicting cultural and religious practices, when he observes, ‘There are many ways…to tell the same story’.   Later, in what is a neat summation of the aims of the book – namely to tell the stories of those largely unrecorded in history – Rao explains to Maya: ‘The English love to write about themselves. They write letters about their lives here and send them back to their families.  They write books and books about us, Maya.  Even when they don’t know very much, still they write.’ 

This is an accusation that can’t be laid at the door of the author because the book is full of wonderful cultural detail.   Regular followers of this blog will know that I’m always drawn to descriptions of food.  Far be it from me to disappoint on this occasion!  ‘Crispy savoury vadais served with white coconut chutney; chunky vegetable and dhal pancakes smeared with butter and dark-brown sugar, and to wash it down, small bowls of tangy rasam, spiced with chilli.’  

Maya is the central figure around which the story unfolds and I liked the way she attempts to exercise the little power she possesses in order to influence the course of her life and of those close to her, sadly often without success because of the forces arrayed against her and women like her.   The role of a devadasi was something completely new to me with its strange mixture of sanctity and sexuality.  There are some fabulous descriptions of Maya’s dancing that really bring to life its artistry and storytelling. ‘Her dance began at the tips of her fingers and moved flame-like through her fingers, wrists, arms, until her entire body undulated… She was down on one knee now, her face anguished, both arms thrust out with the palms upward, pleading to her lover… Her hands caressed the air and her feet moved like quicksilver.  The slow tempo quickened and, with a turn, she transformed Phoenix-like from the devoted wife to the scorned woman.’    No wonder it has such an effect on those watching.

The book doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of inequality and colonialism, depicting the worst excesses of British military force and the ill effects of British economic and political influence on the region:  ordinary people literally starving in the streets whilst British officials and their wives feast on food supplies stockpiled within their fortresses; cruel mistreatment of native women by soldiers; punitive levels of taxation; and profiteering by members of the British East India Company.

As with the best historical fiction, The Pagoda Tree transported me to a different time and place, immersing me in a culture very different to my own.  Richly atmospheric and infused with the sights, sounds and smells of 18th century India, The Pagoda Tree is a treat for the senses and a deeply satisfying reading experience.

Congratulations to the folks at Unbound and all the book’s supporters for spotting the potential of this fantastic novel.  I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Unbound, and Random Things Tours in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Atmospheric, lush, sensuous

Try something similar…The Concubine’s Child by Carol Jones or Song by Michelle Jana Chan (click on title to read my review)

Claire Scobie Author PictureAbout the Author

Claire Scobie is an award-winning author and novelist who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. In 2017, she co-wrote A Baboon in the Bedroom with her mother, Patricia Scobie. Claire writes for numerous publications, including The Daily Telegraph and The Observer; teaches creative writing workshops in Australia, Asia and the UK; and in 2013 completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel.

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