Colour and Dance: The Pagoda Tree

This month’s TBYL Book Club book has been the stunningly crafted The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (Penguin). I’m very much looking forward to chatting with Claire this evening (join in here) but in the meantime I thought I’d share with you my review of this beautiful novel…

pagodaThere are a many adjectives that I could use to describe Claire’s novel – it is rich, complex, exotic and erotic, bloody and beautiful. Each individual word can be used to describe a particular scene in The Pagoda Tree, but it is only when these elements combine that you experience the true intensity of this story. Its rich colours and aromas leap from the page, the horrors visited upon the characters that you grow to love tear you apart, and of course, the complexity of relationships, traditions and cultures draw you completely into Maya’s story…

Maya dances like no other. She becomes the dance . . . Her dance can steal a man’s soul.

Tanjore, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples of this ancient city in the heart of southern India. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become adevadasi, 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. 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. 
Maya captivates all who watch her dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. But their love is forbidden, and comes at enormous cost.

Maya as protagonist is a beauty, destined from birth for great things. But, as is foretold, her path is unclear and all throughout this novel neither she nor the reader is entirely sure where the future will lead her. She is lead, with little say in her own life, to what would seem a chosen position in favour with the Prince. She is honoured but unsure, and is left shaken when the path that had been laid out for her is destroyed by politics and conflicts well outside of her control.

The women in Maya’s life are complex, her mother Lakshmi loves her but is committed unerringly to her role in the temple, and in turn to the role which Maya must play – she bears the signs of the goddess . She is caring but harsh. Interestingly, this harshness makes Maya love her no less, as if she is aware in some way of the protection that her mother is to her…

She began to wash her daughter. She ground dried turmeric root and mixed it into a paste with gram flour, sandalwood, milk and honey. She smeared the mixture over Maya’s back and neck, rubbing it hard under the ears and down across her narrow frame, her roughed hands scratching her most tender parts. By the end Maya glowed deep yellow.

Palani, mentor to Maya and once courtesan to the King is enlivened by Maya’s presence, draws great satisfaction from her ability to teach her apprentice the art of dance (and service) and shares a deep connection with the young girl. That does not stop her from lashing out with great vitriol at times, as Maya represents in no uncertain terms the fact that Palani must relinquish her position to this younger, more virile royal companion. Still, as Palani struggles to accept her own progression from court to cave, she seems to take comfort in the transference of her skills and duties to Maya.

For me, these complicated female relationships are by far the most compelling element of this story.

Further to this though, The Pagoda Tree bears undeniable evidence of meticulous research. No detail has been left unconsidered, from the colour, the sound, the smell of the landscape and homes, courts and people. The emotions, conversations and reactions of the characters appear incredibly authentic, as does the history woven throughout this tale. It was honestly transporting, ensuring that I closed the book wanting to find out more about this time and place.

I hope you’ll read this novel, it is an incredible experience. Likewise, I hope you’ll join us on Facebook this evening (Monday, 28 Oct 7:30pm EST) for a chat with the author, Claire Scobie.

If you’d like to find out more about Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree, visit the Penguin website here…