Book review: The Pavilion in the Clouds, by Alexander McCall Smith

Set in the tea plantations of Ceylon, shortly before it gained its independence and became Sri Lanka, Alexander McCall Smith’s new novel is one of his most enjoyable yet, writes Allan Massie

Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Colin Hattersley Photography

The ever fecund Alexander McCall Smith continues to surprise as well as please. With The Pavilion in the Clouds he steps boldly into Somerset Maugham territory: the late days of the Empire, British colonials in the east owning or managing tea-gardens or running estates, social life centring on the Club, marriages under strain, questions of adultery, loneliness, talk of “Home.” The novel is set in what was then Ceylon, is now Sri Lanka, and, though one talks of “colonials” the British in the Far East, India, Ceylon, Burma and Malaya were never, or only very rarely colonists. The men worked and their wives, often bored, made what they could of a life that was both comfortable and uncomfortable, in a country they seldom made a great effort to understand. Their children would be sent “home” to boarding schools, and they themselves often looked forward to when they would again be home.

It is lonely in the tea-garden high in the hills. Henry and Virginia Ferguson, Scots like so many planters, have a bright, even precocious daughter, Bella, who names her dolls after Chinese poets and engages in conversation with them. The doll strand is a trifle whimsical, and gets more so late in the novel; but it rings true. Bella will of course go back to school in Scotland in a year or so – her friend Richard from a neighbouring plantation, is already about to go. Meanwhile, however, she has a governess.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Miss White is tall, thin, unattractive, doomed, it seems, to be a spinster. But she is also intelligent, well-read – her father a St Andrews professor. She is an excellent teacher. Virginia is a uncomfortable with her, suspecting first that though she is Miss White’s employer, Miss White rather looks down on her. She seems more at ease with Henry, too much so perhaps. Is it possible that there is something between them? Bella -and her dolls - latch on to these suspicions. There is an accident, and then there is a mean act , which years later when she is herself at university in St Andrews leaves Bella feeling guilty.

The Pavilion in the Clouds, by Alexander McCall Smith

That’s enough of the outline of the plot. It’s persuasively and enjoyably worked out. Maugham would doubtless have made it a bit colder and more unpleasant, but it is characteristic of McCall Smith that his characters try to behave well, even when it is difficult to do so. They are nice people who find themselves in an emotional mess.

The evocation of colonial life is admirable. The novel is set in 1938, and his characters already recognize that the British Empire is approaching its twilight years. Perhaps they are too aware of this. It’s difficult now of course, looking back in the knowledge that India would be independent (and partitioned) within then ten years and that Ceylon would soon follow ,becoming Sri Lanka, not to realise that the sun was setting on the Empire and that these tea-planter were living on borrowed time.

Perhaps McCall Smith slightly exaggerates this awareness, just as he allows his characters to wonder if they are entitled to be in this position of dominance. I suspect that it is more likely that a real life Henry and Virginia would have had fewer doubts and more assurance. It was the Japanese successes of 1941-2, especially the Fall of supposedly securely-fortified Singapore that made the crack apparent. Post-imperial guilt would take a long time to surface.

Nevertheless one of the charms of this novel is its sympathetic portrayal of colonial life. As ever McCall Smith is excellent on detail – the cucumber sandwiches at the club which are already curling at the edges in the heat, the soup that despite Virginia’s instructions to the cook is always too highly spiced. Nabokov in his essays on Literature insisted in the need for writers and readers to cherish the details. It is advice that McCall Smith never forgets, and his attention to detail s one reason why his novels are themselves so richly cherished. Then there is his moral generosity, evident in his understanding of how even good people do shabby things. This is one of the most enjoyable of his many enjoyable novels.

The Pavilion in the Clouds, by Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, 224pp, £14.99. Alexander McCall Smith is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions