I was like an impatient child in the last few days before Christmas waiting for Natasha Pulley’s second novel. When I heard the title, I assumed it would be about a library in an asylum (I hope she will forgive me). And while that is still a book I would read, The Bedlam Stacks is more delightful than anything I could have imagined.
Set in 1859, a small band British explorers are sent to Peru to bring back cuttings of the cinchona tree, the source of the lifesaving quinine, a treatment for malaria. Merrick Tremayne worked as a plant thief for the East India Company in the past, and he nearly lost leg on his last mission.
He’s now homebound at his crumbling family home, aching for something to do despite his painful injury. He’s approached for the expedition to Peru because of his successful plant-smuggling reputation, but also because his crippled gait will be less suspicious to cinchona growers. And his grandfather had also visited decades before. He can simply say he is visiting his grandfather’s route while studying the coffee that grows in the area.
As Merrick and his friend Clements “Clem” Markham traipse into the mountainous interior of the Andean highlands, reality and fantasy slowly dissolve into one another. The altitude sickness makes them doubt the plan and even their decision to come at all. They are assigned a guide and keeper, Raphael, to make sure they arrive safely in New Bethlehem and do nothing but study coffee.
The sun came out suddenly. Greenish blue shadows fell across the boat and turned the river turquoise. The light was shining down through transparent parts in the stacks, which weren’t rock but glass. … When I put my hand out to the coloured shadow beside me, it was hot. The boatman steered us away from it but he didn’t quite move quickly enough. Where the tip of the boom swung into the light, the grass sail caught fire. ~ Pg. 103
The further they go into the wilderness, the stranger things become. The landscape is made of clear, cooled molten glass. The trees are highly combustible. A nearly invisible pollen gives of a golden glow when stirred. Stone statues can move. The cinchona grove lies on the other side of a forbidden forest. A line of salt has been drawn between the dark, impenetrable woods and the small town.
I didn’t understand until I straightened up and found what I thought was an oddly made oil lamp hanging on the wall from a piece of rope. It was made out of an old fishing float, but there was a clock’s key in the side. I turned it and heard clockwork skitter. Inside the glass ball, a dusty gold glow trailed a clock’s second-hand turning disembodied from a clock face. The light strengthened with each tick of the brass hand, and by the time a time minute had swept by, it was much brighter than a candle. When I held it close to my eye, I could see the matter of the light; it was tiny particles, floating like luminous icing sugar. ~Pg. 117
Merrick attempts to understand the physics of his surroundings, discern the local customs, translate the Quechua language and plan to retrieve cinchona cuttings without being caught. His outward patience and attempts to be a respectful guest gain the polite devotion of Raphael. The reader quickly becomes entranced as the book follows Merrick’s discovery and adventure as he quietly unravels the mysteries of the place.
Pulley creates details with such ease that the reader accepts the ethereal beauty of the deep Andean forest. And she does so while keeping one foot in the reality of colonialism, missionaries, Victorian exploration and commerce. Like Merrick, we know an entirely different world exists at home, but we choose to immerse ourselves in this one for awhile.
Pulley takes inspiration from real events and people. Robert Fortune was a botanist and plant hunter who stole tea from China on behalf of the British government. He too used Wardian cases to transport the precious commodity. And British interests really did want to grow cinchona trees to protect their subjects in India from malaria. The efforts were led by a British civil servant named Clem Markham, though the expedition was likely nothing like Pulley’s imaginings. (I can’t help but wonder if Pulley chose to name Merrick after the “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick.)
The author also loosely ties The Bedlam Stacks to her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We come to realize this book is set in the same world as Keita Mori. However, this is a much less frenetic, angst-ridden plot and Merrick is a grounded, unflappable protagonist, which is necessary for the novel to be successful. I enjoyed it even more than her first book. The reader will relish slowly absorbing the magic of The Bedlam Stacks.
My thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.
By Natasha Pulley
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (August 1, 2017)