The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley

Who wouldn’t fancy a jaunt out into the wilderness in these days of social isolation and lockdowns? And the jungles and mountains of darkest Peru – I’m sorry, but Peru is forever linked to Paddington Bear and Aunt Lucy for me – retain a mystery and a mystique even today. Imagining ourselves in 1859, heading into the interior of a wartorn, fractured, colonial Peru in search for botanical samples seems a wonderful, dangerous, thrilling adventure.

Add into the mix Pulley’s trademark magic realism – gaslamp fantasy perhaps – and deft prose, and this was always going to promise to be a winner, and so it was!

Quinine… It is a word and a medicine that I am aware of – that fortunately I have never had occasion to use – and like aspirin I was vaguely aware that it was originally from tree bark. What I didn’t realise was that the cinchona tree from which it was derived was a jealously guarded asset, and potent political tool between colonial powers in the region. But it appears it was. There was a real life historical expedition to collect (which might be a rather generous word for it, steal and smuggle may be more apt) cinchona specimens from Peru and transport them to India led by Sir Clements Markham and it is into this historical expedition that Pulley drops the imagined Merrick Tremayne our protagonist and narrator. As he says, with typical wryness from Pulley, the expedition was

fetching cuttings from calisaya cinchona trees to begin a new plantation in India. The only cinchona forests in the world grew in Peru, and the only treatment in the world for malaria was quinine – derived from cinchona bark. Malaria was getting worse and worse in India, which was doing unpromising things to the trade revenue of the India Office.

Could there be a more Cornish name than Merrick Tremayne? And it is in Cornwall that we first find Tremayne, a little stir crazy after an enforced isolation with his brother in their mouldering ancestral home after an injury to his leg. A home which included rather gothically the remains of a chapel and a graveyard including Tremayne’s father’s grave watched over by a statue – a statue that managed to move out of the way of a falling tree during the storm that opens the novel, despite weighing a ton and a half, and shift itself around the grounds.

Before too many chapters elapse, we are co-opted into Clem’s expedition, en route to Peru and the Andes and the brooding figure of Raphael, the Chuncho from New Bethlehem on the other side of the mountains and Tremayne’s guide and translator. Like Mori in Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Raphael is more than he seems: he

left a vague impression in the air of some kind of clerk or bodyguard, someone whose name wouldn’t matter. The man didn’t seem like either. He held himself very straight, not like a servant, in good but old clothes that must just have been ironed, because I caught the smell of hot cotton when he came in past me. He was Indian, but from a different nation to Quispe and Hernandez and the boys. He didn’t have the Incan nose and his hair was cut short, and he was far taller. He moved so slowly it was ostentatious, the way very strong men do, and I wrote him off after about half a second as probably an arrogant bastard, although after meeting so many beaten-down people on the road, it was a relief to see someone who looked like he might punch anybody trying to make him sweep a yard.

He stopped when he saw me, just before reaching his chair. His expression opened as if he knew me, but then he saw he was wrong and sat down. Martel thumped him to say hello. It didn’t sway him in the least and Martel looked as if he might have hurt his hand.

Pulley does seem to have an interest in time in her novels, playing with the idea of time being something much more other than our usual linear perception of it – or our imposition of a linear interpretation on it. Unlike Mori who remembers the future, Raphael loses days, weeks and even decades of time in episodes which Tremayne attributes to extreme and “exponential catalepsy” but which might be something more spiritual. What it means, though, is that Tremayne’s father’s and grandfather’s earlier expeditions to Peru becomes much more potent.

Pulley, in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was exceptional in her creation on Victorian London; in The Bedlam Stacks she is no less expert at depicting New Bethlehem or Bedlam, Raphael’s village cum orphanage cum hospital. The village bursts with unusual and alien features, not least of which is the leaving of babies at the church. It is guarded by half a dozen markayuq, stone wardens who move to receive offerings – remember Tremayne’s Dad’s statue? – and its air is impregnated with luminescent pollen from the forest which can be collected for lamps… or perhaps in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, to light clockwork fireflies. Trees in the forests explode and the eponymous stacks are huge stacks of obsidian at the edge of New Bethlehem:

Where there used to be a bridge of land, the river had worn through and made three towering stacks. Clem worked out later that they were six hundred and twelve feet high. I couldn’t see the tops of them properly, but around the bases were wharves, arranged like spokes, and then stairs and stairs and stairs, up to a tangle of wooden scaffolding that supported the corners of houses and spiralling gantries. As we came closer, I could see people moving; there was a man with a wheelbarrow full of pineapples.

The sun came out suddenly. Greenish blue shadows fell across the boat and turned the riverwater turquoise. The light was shining down through translucent parts in the stacks, which weren’t rock but glass. It had been worn shiny and clear by the weather and the river. When I put my hand out to the coloured shadow beside me, the light 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. The boatman squeaked. Raphael, who had been drinking something from the cup of a flask, lobbed the contents at the little fire and put it out before it could spread. He didn’t seem worried by it, but the boatman looked shaken and steered us square down a line of unlensed sunlight.

‘My God,’ Clem said. ‘That’s obsidian. Blue obsidian. It’s formed in a strata over the – that isn’t possible.’ He said it in a nearly accusatory way towards Raphael, who was either too tired or too graceful to take him up on it.

At no point, however, does the foreignness of the setting and alienness of the world detract from the humanity of the people in the world.

Pulley expertly brings together the various strands of her story, weaving an intricate and beautiful narrative, as beautiful as the Incan knot-writing that features in the novel – and which is a real historical thing – and a wonderfully tender relationship between Tremayne and Raphael.

For my taste, the fantastical element in this novel were taken perhaps one step too far – one step further than Mori’s prescience was in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – and becomes a little stretched and a little … a little explicit in the final part of the novel. Not enough to detract from the characterisation, but not as deft or as subtle as it could have been, as Pulley has shown herself capable of being elsewhere.

CONSIDER THIS BOOK IF YOU LIKED

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐

World Building: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Date: 14th June 2018

Available: Amazon, Bloomsbury

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