Name: The Bedlam Stacks
Author: Natasha Pulley
Number of Pages: 336 (Hardback)
Published: August 1st 2017 by Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Magical Realism
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. – from Goodreads
The Bedlam Stacks gets off to an intriguing start – a country estate in Cornwall with exotic (explosive) trees, statues that may move, especially to get out of the rain, and an older brother who is convinced that Merrick, the man at the centre of our tale is slowly starting to go insane. His answer to this? Merrick has two options, the asylum, or occupying his mind by becoming a parson.
Merrick hasn’t led the kind of life that would see him adjust well to the latter, having been a smuggler for the East India Company in bygone years, during which time he sustained a leg injury.
When the opportunity for escape comes via the India Office, who want Merrick to travel to Peru to collect cinchona cuttings, which are required to make quinine, used to treat malaria, Merrick takes the chance, despite being physically unprepared for such a demanding and dangerous expedition. For other parties have gone before him into this land, and there are tales of gangs and murders and missing explorers.
Merrick has ties to this region though, his father and grandfather both visited, so there’s a certain familiarity about it even though he’s yet to venture there himself.
After an engaging beginning I found the story a little slower paced as the expedition, including Merrick and his friend Clem and his pregnant wife Minna, set out. I stuck with it though and once they arrived in Peru I was engrossed once more.
As the group meet up with Martel, who insists they are accompanied by the enigmatic Raphael, I couldn’t put the book down.
Raphael is a fascinating character, and the slow burn way the friendship between him and Merrick develops is great. There’s such an air of mystery surrounding him, about where he came from, and whether his connection to the Tremayne family actually goes further back than this new friendship with Merrick, for Merrick is charged with delivering a letter to ‘the priest’ of Bedlam, a letter written several years before by his grandfather, who also visited Bedlam. Raphael being so much younger, Merrick assumes this letter was for his predecessor, the previous priest. But is that true?
Bedlam itself sounds magical, with its great glass stacks which magnify the sun to such an extent it’s possible to burn in their heat at certain times of day, and the mythology and history woven in with a strange truth surrounding the stone figures, or markayuq, who are treated with reverence and respect. The pollen that glows gold, leaving gold trails in its wake sounds magical. It’s all like a fairytale blended with history in a great mixture.
Of course, there is death and danger, with the dark forest marked out by a salt border and warnings not to cross at risk of death. People have gone over that line before and never made it back, for something or someone doesn’t want them there.
This is a read to savour; historical, supernatural, fairytale and magic weave together seamlessly around the central friendship of Raphael and Merrick. While after that great opening it initially took me some time to fall into this novel, once I had it was a great adventure of a read. The scenes created are magical and wondrous, and there’s even an appearance from a certain character from Watchmaker, which just added to the appeal of The Bedlam Stacks.