The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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Reviewed by Annabel


Natasha Pulley’s debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (which I reviewed here in 2015), was a wonderful discovery. A period thriller with hints of steampunk fantasy, and a matching beautiful cover design complete with cutout watch dial, it became an instant favourite of the year. Now Bloomsbury have done it again, giving Pulley’s second novel an equally eye-catching cover with a cut-out clockwork lamp, and I was very keen to read it indeed.

The story of The Bedlam Stacks is set a couple of decades before Watchmaker, and begins in Cornwall – at what we will come to know as “The Lost Gardens of Heligan”; though here they are not totally lost yet!

Merrick Tremayne, a botanist, lives there with his older brother. He worked for the infamous East India Company, he smuggled opium for them, but his leg was badly injured. He has retired hurt to Cornwall, but his brother wants to pack him off to become a country parson. Enter Clem, Sir Clement Markham, Merrick’s best friend with a proposition. There is a shortage of good quality quinine in Europe and Asia – so the plan is to go to Peru to get cinchona tree cuttings…

‘So – to be clear,’ I said at last, because they had both been waiting for me to speak in a loaded silence that sounded a lot like they wanted to make sure I definitely could speak still. ‘We are… being sent to steal a plant whose exact location nobody knows, in territory now defended by quinine barons under the protection of the government, and inhabited by tribal Indians who also hate foreigners and have killed everyone who’s got close in the last ten years.’

To cut a long story short, their journey is not easy, but eventually they arrive in the region and have to make peace with the Spanish boss Martel, pretending they’re searching for coffee, nobody is fooled, but they go along with it. Merrick is able to spin a yarn though as his grandfather had spent time in the region seventy years ago. Martel assigns them an Indian guide to take them over the mountain to New Bethlehem, a.k.a. Bedlam. Raphael, the guide is the strong, silent type but when he sees Merrick he is surprised:

His expression opened as if he knew me, but then he saw he was wrong and sat down. …Raphael was still watching me hard, taking measurements. However he had mistaken me for, I must have been a good lookalike.

Dogged by altitude sickness, they eventually make it over the mountains to the little town of Bedlam, which is built up from the banks of the river upon volcanic stacks of glassy metamorphic rock linked by high wooden walkways. Pulley’s descriptions of this weird environment are wonderful – the little town feels magical – it felt like Tolkien’s Rivendell transported from the forest to a volcanic jungle. Raphael warns them:

Don’t come down here around midday if it’s sunny, you’ll catch fire. In the forest there is a border marked with salt and animal bones; don’t cross it. There are Indians in the woods and they don’t like wandering foreigners. You’ll never see them but they’re there.

It transpires that although of Incan descent, Raphael is Bedlam’s nominally Catholic priest, and that the entire town is a hospital colony. All the inhabitants are ill or disabled. Raphael as the only fully able-bodied resident ministers to them, although he is prone to disappear at times. Even more confusingly, Raphael appears to have known Merrick’s grandfather, but he can’t be that old, surely?

The towns and villages in this region are guarded by large statues known as Markayuq – which move. When we first encounter them, I immediately thought of Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels which scared me witless, but these statues although threatening to the uninitiated, are also far more interesting.The Markayuq are real, but Pulley’s versions are, the adventurers are told, animated by clockwork and pressure pads in the ground. They appear to be more than just statues though.

Pulley went to Peru to research this book, learning some of the local language there and she has certainly done her research into the historical period and the Incas. Then she blends in some imaginative ideas of her own like the fascinating clockwork-driven lamps full of luminous pollen. She certainly has a fixation on clockwork mechanisms! And, in a neat touch, Merrick works with Watchmaker’s young Keito Mori whilst in opium-smuggling mode in China.

There is only one main female character in this story and that is Clem’s wife Minna. However, she elects to stay behind in the city rather than follow the chaps into the interior – just like Sophie in Eowyn Ivey’s second novel To the Bright Edge of the World (reviewed here). This leaves the men to bond, and the touching relationship between Merrick and Raphael is at the heart of this novel.

This novel is so full of riches: there’s the sheer adventure, the mission to beat the cartel and smuggle back cinchona cuttings forms the ground work, but the rest of the book takes flight in the wonderful descriptions of nature and this remote world. Then there is the spiritual element – the conqueror’s Catholicism versus the native Incan beliefs, and of course the mystical, magical aura that infuses the novel.

Pulley manages to fit an awful lot into The Bedlam Stacks’s 325 or so pages. Dare I say it, the first couple of chapters are a little slow, but once Clem arrives, it takes off and doesn’t slow down until the last chapter which gives us a fitting and touching ending. For all its pace, Pulley’s writing is elegant and to the point and shows no second novel nerves, this is a superb story, beautifully told.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds, and wishes that pollen lamps were real.

Natasha Pulley, The Bedlam Stacks (Bloomsbury, 2017) hardback, 325 pages.

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