Figuring it out: Claire Scobie took inspiration from carved temple walls. Photo: Karen Hardy
The change of writing genre from non-fiction to fiction is not always easily achieved, but Claire Scobie’s first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, about her search for a rare red lily and her subsequent friendship with a Tibetan nun, already suggested a writer whose evocative prose might make the transition.
Scobie’s first novel, The Pagoda Tree, is an ambitious book set in southern India in 1765 when the British were becoming increasingly dominant. At the heart of the book is the story of Mayambikai – Maya – a young girl training to be a temple dancer, a devadasi.
Pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism.
There is a small hint in the first few pages about where Scobie’s inspiration for the book came from, when Maya, roaming near her home in the temple grounds, has flights of fantasy about the dancing girls carved into the temple walls. When Scobie visited Thanjavur (then Tanjore) in southern India, she was struck by the beauty of the 11th-century walls and that the names and addresses of 400 dancing girls are still visible today. It’s one of those perfect starting points for fiction – a visually arresting moment with a story behind it: Who were these girls and what were they like?
Maya is part of this continuum; her mother was a devadasi, and her ancestors before her. Astrologers have foretold that Maya will have an unusual destiny, and as someone born with the mark of the goddess she has been singled out to be trained to the height of her profession, with the ultimate intention that she will be a courtesan for the prince.
When I was younger, I travelled frequently to India and Scobie’s several research trips have allowed her to capture perfectly what I remember of the intensity of the country. The result is a richly textured tale full of the sights, sounds and smells of India, with all its complex beauty and troubled history.
Into the single thread of Maya’s life are woven numerous other stories. Within Maya’s complex relationship with her somewhat emotionally detached mother, Scobie
achieves a delicate balance – both mother and child yearning for love and acceptance. For Maya, much of her story is about loss: The loss of her beloved aunt when she is cast out for visiting a Muslim doctor; her patronage by Palani, the resident but ageing courtesan and dancer who then disappears; the subsequent breakdown of the prince’s power and Maya’s ensuing enslavement to the head of the temple, and her attraction to, and relationship with, Thomas Pearce, a young Englishman trying to make his fortune.
The word pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism for the book. Somehow though, this book reminds me more of that most quintessential of Indian garments – the sari. 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 the tapestry of this novel.
But in some ways its very ambition and complexity is where Scobie stumbles somewhat. The creation not just of Maya as a main character, but also the English Reverend Sutcliffe, the corrupt Mudaliar, head of the temple and purchaser of Maya, and her lover Thomas – among others – means the reader’s focus is, on occasions, distracted from engagement with Maya’s story. To my mind, the other characters in the book don’t achieve quite the same emotional depth as Maya.
However, as the story wends its colourful way to an inevitable denouement, through the increasing distress of a country struggling against the invaders, and the tragedy of Maya and Thomas’s doomed relationship, this is a novel to be savoured, in much the same way as the colourful subcontinent itself.
In Last Seen in Lhasa, Scobie wrote of Pemako in Tibet that it was ”a spiritualscape where legend merged with truth.” Scobie has, once more, found a subject matter with a powerful ”spiritualscape” and she does it ample justice.
Purchase Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree here.
THE PAGODA TREE
Viking, 384pp, $29.99