Review: The Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith


My Interest

I love two of Alexander McCall Smith’s series, and have read a few other books by him as well. When I saw this and read it was set on a tea plantation in then Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) just before World War II, it got my attention. The between the wars period is such an interesting time in history.

The Story

Bella is the only child of a tea planter. She lives with her mother, her somewhat distant but nice father, their servants, her dolls (“the Chinese Poets”) and a governess, Miss Lavender White. She has one friend, a boy of her own age named Richard, whose parents are also part of the Colonial community. Their mothers play tennis and have lunch or tea at the Club. Their fathers work and, over time, will start drinking earlier and earlier in the day.

Bella, with some help from Richard, gets a notion about her governess. She tells things to her parents. But is she telling the truth?

The story is divided into two parts–away and “at home.” Bella as a child, and Bella later. Quirkier than it sounds here.


My Thoughts

This was a wonderfully quirky little story with a wonderfully quirky little girl. I’ve experienced life in a “colonial” outpost without t.v., movie theater, internet, reliable phone (cell phones were in the future). I know the sheer tedium and boredom of re-reading the same copies of Newsweek (instead of Virginia’s Illustrated London News), the boredom of knitting countless sweaters to give away just to make time pass. I remember, too, the “thrill” of going to the capital where we could go to “The News” and see that week’s ABC news broadcast distilled down to about an hour. Or, the thrill of going to the British Council Library, 2 tickets in hand!

This is the life Bella’s family led, but with World War II about to erupt, the Indians, not so far away, ready to erupt and throw over the British. There was the heat. The snakes. The same people. The same boring people. The same food. The rainy season. The dry season. The servant problems. The tedium and boredom of a life so isolated that today Amnesty International would likely call it a violation of human rights.

I loved that this story was largely seen from Bella’s eyes–not that she told it, but we were given her “sense” of it. I loved her life being her two odd dolls–so wonderful. I felt for her mother, Virginia, so bored in spite of her “reading circle” which even her husband had bragged about. I’m sure she mentally dined out on that the rest of her life. I felt too, for Miss White. I did wonder why a graduate of St. Andrew’s was working as a governess on a tea plantation and not teaching at one of the ever-growing posh girls schools, but maybe travel meant a lot to her? Finally, I felt for Henry–he was trying to make a go of the plantation with its processing factory, but his wife wasn’t happy–what to do? After all, men who went home were “weak.” No man would want to be seen as “weak.”

As always, Alexander McCall Smith delivers wonderful characters and a sense of “being there” with the characters. It’s why I enjoy his books. Now, if someone could explain how he writes so many books? (Staff, I imagine).

My Rating

3.5 Stars

The Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith


6 thoughts on “Review: The Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith

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    1. Until just now, I’d forgotten about meeting a real tea planter in Malawi–Cathcart Cay! You couldn’t forget that name! A real colonia in shorts, knee socks, shirt, tie, sweater vest most likely knit by the wife. LOL. He was great–we talked about the local political scene. The big cash crops had their own “parastatals” a South African term for part govt-part private, so we didn’t ordinarily meet the tobacco or tea & coffee people or the forestry people. The only cash crop people we saw were the cashew folks. Some villages had cashew so they got a lot of govt support. Plus it was the biggest cash crop. Australia, Hawaii, and Malawi then topped the world in cashew.


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