Rich in culture, history and beauty, India is a popular setting for novels, particularly ones of a historic persuasion – the southern states though, usually don’t get a look in. Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree, set in late 1700s’ Tamil Nadu, thus stands out. It’s a book I read with particular interest as my mother was from Kerala, the neighbouring state, and these are regions I know well from my travels.

The title references an idiom, ‘shake the pagoda tree’, popular in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and essentially meaning getting rich quick. A ‘pagoda’ was a gold coin used in the Madras residency until 1818 and India was seen by many as a place to make their fortune. The pagoda of Scobie’s story also refers to a southern India temple – protagonist Maya is given to the devadasi, the women married to the temple gods, at a young age, to train as a temple dancer.

From the outset, Scobie carefully constructs India in the late eighteenth century, immersing us in its customs, society and culture. The land is beautifully evoked, which is hardly surprising given that Scobie is an established travel writer, and the descriptions of the country and architecture literally shine through, giving the plot an authentic setting and enabling Scobie’s culturally diverse characters to exist and interact with each other credibly – essential factors in any successful novel. Add to this the historic context of a vast, vibrant country on the cusp of quite brutal colonisation by a western powerhouse and a story about women with strong female characters (always good) and one can’t really go wrong.

The Pagoda Tree is an accomplished novel, well written and very readable, and if you’re intending to travel to India, literally or from the comfort of your sofa, this would be an ideal companion … along with an M.M. Kaye or two and that oh-so-precious jar of Marmite.


The Pagoda Tree | Claire Scobie | Unbound | paperback | £9.99 | other editions available


Acknowledgements: Quoted text from p. 5 The Pagoda Tree © Claire Scobie 2018. This review is published as part of the virtual book tour organised by Anne Cater to whom we extend our thanks. Many thanks also to the publisher for supplying a review copy of the book. The image, ‘Mine’s a cup of Lapsang’, is © The Literary Shed 2018. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.


Music to listen to: ‘Traveller’, Talvin Singh; ‘66 Meters‘, Indian Ropeman; ‘Beware of the Boys‘, Punjabi MC/Jay-Z;   ‘Chura Liya Hai Tumne‘, Asha Bhosle; ‘Brimful of Asha‘, Cornershop.


Food to graze on while you’re reading: ‘Fava me with love‘; ‘Hunza apricots’


Also of interest: ‘A tale of “Jews and shoes” in modern China, Spencer Wise’s debut novel’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘The Woolgrower’s companion‘; ‘20 books this summer challenge – lovely words‘, no 14 on the list; ‘Soundings – in search of one father’s war‘ (interview, artist Kate Gritton); ‘The stark beauty of William Shaw’s Salt Lane‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper –indie publisher, Orenda, does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’.


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.