The Bedlam Stacks

      Publisher: Bloomsbury 

      RRP: £12.99

      Author: Natasha Pulley 

      Published:  2017-07-13

 

 

 


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.


 

Bittersweet, yet satisfying.

 

The Bedlam Stacks is the second title set in the world of the international bestseller, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. As such, it has high standards to maintain. The story is rich in sensory detail, and the narrative takes a slow meander, much like the arduous journey of Merrick through the foothills and mountains of Peru. Its sense of time, too, is expansive, with flashbacks to previous expeditions of Merrick’s career. While the vivid, rich descriptions slow down the story’s progression, perhaps this is a deliberate reflection of the party’s journey. Impatient readers may find themselves frustrated with the story’s (and the expedition’s) slow progression. The narrative expertly conjures at turns, the oppressive heat of foreign climes, and the cold, oxygen deprived altitudes of Peru.

Merrick is a somewhat odd protagonist, the reader knows little about him for much of the tale, although it is told through his eyes. We do know that he has lost his health through his many previous expeditions, and one gets a sense of his being used and manipulated by the East India Company. As such, the character has a note of melancholy about him, and sadness at his current state. It appears his life has been devoted to his work, and that he has missed out on other areas as a result. Despite this, it is, perhaps, hard to identify with a character so very much of his time. The Bedlam Stacks exists in a time period which is deeply problematic, in terms of the British Empire resource stripping other countries, and the story does little to address the issues of Colonialism, and the greater consequences of Merrick’s mission. The reader does get a sense of Merrick’s otherness and isolation during his journey. The story is very much a product of the time period in which it is set, and, as such, there are few female characters who have more than supporting roles.

The magical elements of the novel are original and fascinating, with their roots in Peruvian and Incan traditions and legends, including Quipi, a form of language communicated through knots in string, and the holy statues, which are initially dismissed as local superstition. The statues are a fascinating concept, bridging the gap between local faith and Christianity. Despite this, the mystical elements are slow to unfold, and readers may curse Merrick’s initial lack of curiosity about these local curiosities.

The finale of The Bedlam Stacks is bittersweet, yet satisfying, and the second half of the book progresses at a more swift pace than the earlier chapters. The Bedlam Stacks delivers a rewarding story to readers willing to commit the time to its epic tale. 


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