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.
It is 1859. The story kicks off with brotherly distrust, a crumbling historic home, moving statues and exploding trees. And then we get into the real journey that Merrick Tremayne is destined to take deep within Peru.
The notions and antics of the East India Company are a good backdrop and not to be scoffed at as Pulley's research shows. Not necessarily legitimate or honourable but founded in Victorian discovery and progressiveness, Sing and the East India Company provide Tremayne with his escape from becoming a pastor in Truro.
"Still holding it between my fingertips I realised that all it was now was the fossil of a dead chance."
The journey is real: A hard slog through treacherous country and altitudes. The reader is then introduced to New Bethlehem or Bedlam and the magical realism of the markayuq and salt line borders, pollen and cog lanterns and a priest that has been asleep for 70 years.
"Dad had told all his fairytales in Quechua. I'd forgotten that, even if I'd remembered the stories."
Merrick or "Em" and his friend Clem have underestimated the harshness of their journey and very quickly their expedition becomes less about collecting samples and cuttings, and more about survival. They've got each other's backs but is that enough? They've been given an ultimatum by Sing so they know this could be a one way trip without the all important quinine cuttings. Why? Because this is set during a period of brutal British Imperialism, whereby the order of the day was to dominate much of the world's trade. When they meet Raphael they are sure they are going to die. But not everything or everyone is as they seem …
"There was an island … bound by candle ivy flowering happily in a moonbeam haze of pollen that swam and glowed on the thermals above the hot water."
No spoilers here. It is stunning, all of it. Ancient languages and writing cords historical fact withstanding, the myths and fairytales of stone and the sixteenth century Spanish accounts of the Inca are woven throughout. I beg you to read the historical notes that accompany this work.
Lovers of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street like me will be overjoyed at this new work by Natasha Pulley for many reasons. Themes of myths, legends, religion and superstition, all woven into forests and pollen and stone, The Bedlam Stacks is a wonderful, elegant, sparkling, read.
About the author:
Natasha Pulley studied English Literature at Oxford University. She has worked in Waterstones and as a publishing assistant, and has studied in Tokyo. Her first novel was an international bestseller. She now lives in Bath. You can tweet her @natasha_pulley