4 Days after its release I finally swiped the last page of Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks on my kindle. Often books I read during reading slumps quickly become D.N.F’s but thankfully the intrigue of Pulley’s premise kept me going and I was able to enjoy a story wholly different from those I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in recent months.
Author: Natasha Pulley
Publication date: 13th July 2017
In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.
When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.
Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.
Firstly, a very big thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I was drawn to this book for two potentially superficial reasons: (1) I had heard of the author and (2) the cover was my kind of fabulous. Having looked again at the cover (after finishing the book) it is clear that the same attention to detail lovingly written into the pages was also employed in the cover design.
The Bedlam Stacks tells a journey of generations from the perspective of one man in particular, Merrick Tremayne. He is introduced in a way that paints him as almost definitely old, he’s injured and uses a cane to move around but other information seems to alter this initial perception. I still don’t feel as though I have a proper sense of the man himself, though Raphael (who Merrick meets later) I feel like I know intimately. I would’ve liked more emotional insight from Merrick but the dialogue between him and Raphael kind of makes up for that for me. Their conversation ebbs and flows so gloriously and has both poignant moments (though never too heavy) and hilarious banter melded among normal human chatter and it’s completely captivating. I haven’t read dialogue so real to me in a very long time.
What also really stood out for me was the interplay between fact and fiction – Pulley utilises traits of magic without painting a fantasy world – she maintains an entirely believable magical web of a world and does so flawlessly – the pollen was used superbly and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she made it all seem so simple, so natural (though I imagine maintaining that balance would’ve been a difficult balancing act).
But whilst the conversation, and indeed the nuances of genre blending, ticked all the boxes I couldn’t help but feel there were major plot points that didn’t hold the significance they should’ve to me as the reader and though I found that disappointing I continued reading hoping for a more significant emotional payoff. when I got to the final page I didn’t feel so much overwhelmed by the events of the book but more deeply satisfied (which was weird to me because I was sure I needed pace and panic to enjoy a book). Pulley writes a very deep narrative and conveys a style I really haven’t appreciated properly until now. I feel as though I’m still working out my response to it but I’d highly recommend it to readers keen on beautiful imagery and a fabulously creative and meaningful premise.
In terms of other characters I found many of them to be a little underdeveloped in favour of developing the scene around them. I wish Clem had been written a little less two-dimensionally as I found him to be pretty disagreeable from the start – If he’d had more likeable qualities it definitely would’ve added something for me.
Overall what it lacked for me was that real drive; it was a slow burn of a book and I guess I went in expecting something a little more fast paced. It’s a beautiful literary work without a doubt but it tells a gentle and beautiful story rather than a particularly frightening or dramatic tale. I think the suggestions of fear and danger in the first chapters (the exploding trees, missing keys, moving statue) set it up to be a little bit more ‘indiana-jones-y’ in terms of pace (I wish I could think of a better example but hopefully you get what I mean!) That being said I don’t think I could’ve quite comprehended the world Pulley was creating if it had moved any faster – some of her descriptions were almost beyond the scope of my imagination – a trait I found frustrating but also fascinating and impressive. Pulley is a wonderful writer and I’ll definitely read more of her stuff.
SPOILER PARAGRAPH: I haven’t read The Watchmaker on Filigree Street but was intrigued by the reference in The Bedlam Stacks. I’d be interested to hear from readers of both texts to see the relevance of Keita’s address in Knightsbridge. (*edit* I have since discovered that Keita is actually pretty important in the watchmaker! I’ll be reading that next!) I also found the addition of Harry’s deeds to the lands surrounding Bedlam to be a little predictable given the nature of its reveal. I felt as though I was supposed to be surprised but perhaps that was the intention?
A tentative and conflicted 3 1/2 out of 5
– Cat –