Title: The Bedlam Stacks
Author: Natasha Pulley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Published: 1st August, 2017
Synopsis: An astonishing historical novel set in the shadowy, magical forests of South America, which draws on the captivating world of the international bestseller The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Deep in uncharted Peru, the holy town of Bedlam stands at the edge of a forest. The shrine statues move, and anyone who crosses the border dies. But somewhere inside are cinchona trees, whose bark yields quinine: the only known treatment for malaria.
On the other side of the Pacific, it is 1859 and India is ravaged by the disease. The hunt for a reliable source of quinine is critical and in its desperation, the India Office searches out its last qualified expeditionary. Struggling with a terrible injury from his last mission and the strange occurrences at his family’s ruined estate, Merrick Tremayne finds himself under orders to bring back cinchona cuttings at any cost and dispatched, against his own better judgement, to Bedlam.
There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettlingly familiar stories of impossible disappearances and living stone. Gradually, he realises that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by two generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more dangerous and valuable than the India Office could ever have imagined.
Ex- East India smuggler, Merrick Tremayne is at home in Cornwall, recovering from an injury to his leg that inhibits activity for him when the India Office contacts him about an expedition to Peru to fetch some quinine to help treat malaria outbreaks in India. Tremayne instantly knows it is a bad idea : every able-bodied explorer has been unsuccessful, paying with their life, so he questions how he, a disabled explorer, will cope, survive and succeed. Lumped with orders to go, Tremayne is accompanied by a friend, Clem, and they venture into Bedlam, a holy town in uncharted Peru that holds many secrets of the past, and a sense of magic and history that will slowly unfold throughout the five parts of the novel, and reveal secrets about a Tremayne ancestor that Merrick had been unaware of. Accompanied by a priest, Raphael, whose presence indicates something a little out of the ordinary, lending to a sense of fantastical and magical realism within the novel.
The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in history and colonialist ideas and expectations of “The Other”, typically seen through Tremayne’s companion, Clem, whose ignorance and the sense that he felt his knowledge was superior came through at times, in contrast to Tremayne, who I felt made the efforts to understand and communicate effectively with Raphael and show his appreciation for what Raphael was doing for him. In 1860, when disability and injury might be more likely to inhibit what one is able to do, Tremayne copes, albeit with help when he needs it, and in what felt realistic, he is shown to struggle, but readers also get to see what he is capable of, in all areas of his person. It is a travel story with a difference, where the explorers are faced with the harsh realities of an unknown world that challenges their sense of being and self, and shows them just how human and vulnerable they are. They need rescuing by locals, and at times, they are shown to be imperfect, punctures to their egos that their upbringing might have inflated.
I liked Merrick’s sense of humility, and ability to stand back and let Raphael talk. It was refreshing to see this move towards equal standing of characters of vastly different backgrounds, much of which are extrapolated through flashbacks, cleverly inserted into the text without disrupting the flow of the story, and the vast majority is told in first person, with the exception of one chapter towards the end that gives the reader insight into Raphael and his past. Raphael’s absences of long periods of time are explained as catalepsy – by Merrick, who hears of Raphael’s symptoms and urges him to see a doctor – perhaps a marker of how he sees the world, juxtaposed with Raphael’s acceptance of things being the way they are. In doing so, Pulley has illustrated how two different worlds collide, and through this collision, have attempted to find a way to communicate.
Throughout the novel, odd things happen at different times, marking this as more than just an expedition into history and unexplored, uncharted areas of the world as they would have been in the 1860s. These instances hint at elements of fantasy and magical realism, and this makes it a very intriguing novel, as the layers of each chapter and part are revealed slowly to bring the story to it’s conclusion and the wrapping up of the characters and their lives, but at the same time, leaving some aspects open for interpretation and maybe another novel.
It was a enjoyable novel, and has made me want to read Natasha’s first novel. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. An enjoyable novel, and highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries and novels with that little bit of a difference that make them stand out.