The pavilion in the clouds by Alexander McCall Smith

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Prolific British author Alexander McCall Smith is well known for his humourous crime series (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) and cosy domestic tales (44 Scotland Street). In The Pavilion in the Clouds, McCall Smith moves away from these both thematically and geographically.

The novel is set primarily in colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka) just before the outbreak of the Second World War and in the dying days of the British Empire. Precocious eight-year-old Bella is the adored only child of tea plantation owner Henry and restless housewife Virginia. With no siblings and no suitable friends within easy distance of her hilltop home, Bella spends her days playing with her dolls and reading books, encouraged by her literary-minded mother. To prepare her for her inevitable journey back to Scotland to receive a proper British education, Bella’s parents hire Miss White who establishes herself as an accomplished governess but unsettling presence in the household.

After Virginia almost dies in mysterious circumstances, Bella becomes convinced that Miss White is to blame, while Virginia has suspicions about the governess’ intentions towards her husband. It is not until many years later that Bella has a chance to determine what actually happened and perhaps take responsibility for the part she played in the conflict.

The Pavilion in the Clouds in characteristic of a McCall Smith novel – absorbing, philosophical and easy to read. A point of difference is that the majority of the story is told from Bella’s viewpoint. Situations, events and emotions are seen through a child’s eyes, a child who picks up on the tension of the adults around her and draws her own – possibly erroneous – conclusions. The Pavilion in the Clouds is as charming and as supremely readable as all of McCall Smith’s work and is highly recommended.

Themes: Historical, Sri Lanka, Scotland, Family, Relationships, Guilt.

Rose Tabeni