It does look like this blog has become a Natasha Pulley fanclub recently! Some of that has been catching up with my reviews, amd I have been reading other people – in fact, this is the first of three reviews needing to be written so I had better get on with it – but if you wanted an author to revel in and fan over, Natasha Pulley is not a bad choice at all!
With Pepperharrow we dive back into the world of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: back into the foggy streets of Victorian London, back to Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori:
Fog rolled down Filigree Street early that morning. It was a great brown mass, darkening the lights from one window and then the next, engulfing the gilded shop signs until there was nothing left but a crooked trail of bright dots that might have been the street lamps. At the narrow end of the road – it became narrower and narrower the further you went – laundry on the lines between the gables turned sooty. Lamps went on in upstairs windows as people hurried to take it in, too late.
If anything, Pulley’s description, which has always been wonderful, has become more confident, more vibrant, more Dickensian – does anyone else get a Bleak House vibe from that?
It is, I imagine, difficult with a second novel because the big revelation to the reader of Mori’s prescience was made in The Watchmaker – and how do you create tension when your main character is already aware of and can remember and predict every possible future that might happen? Place a newspaper in front of him and he can recall it’s contents because it becomes possible that he might read it, even if he never does. Place an assassin behind him and a tree branch from the tree he planted twenty years previously will fall on him at just the right time.
Pulley’s answer is to catapult both Mori and Thaniel out of London and back towards Japan and the looming presence of Mount Fuji, towards Mori’s ancestral home of Yoruji, and Thaniel’s posting at the British Embassy in Tokyo. On their arrival in Japan, Pulley’s sensory, descriptive writing remains her strength
Thaniel ought probably to have said something about manners, but he was too distracted by the mist. It was real mist, not the London soup. It was white, cold, and pristine. It even tasted clean. Slowly over the years, he’d begun to think of white mist as existing only in memory. He hadn’t seen it since he’d left Lincolnshire. But here it was, hanging luminous in the air above the stony unpaved road and the frost that glittered in the verges. It looked like home, and he had a sudden and completely absurd surge of belonging.
The reason for the return to Japan is convoluted, involving international politics and imperialism and is deeply personal. The Russian fleet has appeared off Korea and the Prime Minister, the somewhat bullish and bullying Kiyotaka Kuroda, wanted the help of his friend (possible defector and traitor) and clairvoyant Mori in defeating them; simultaneously, the British legation in Japan is, reportedly, being haunted by ghosts in the kitchen and Thaniel, now fluent in Japanese, is dispatched to investigate.
As with all of Pulley’s novels, the relationships between the characters are the beating heart of the narrative and they are such a gentle couple, Mori and Thaniel: tender and sweet and protective of each other and their adopted daughter Six. Their relationship, however, is also frustratingly – well – British and British Victorian and stiff upper lipped. I really wanted to sit them down and refuse to feed them until they talked to each other about how they feel because, no matter how upset Thaniel is, he
was damned if he was going to say a word about it. He came across as a whiny little prick enough of the time as it was.
And, on arriving, Thaniel is somewhat unsettled by being greeted by Takiko Pepperharrow, introducing herself as Mori’s wife causing him to re-evaluate his love for and relationship with Mori.
Victorian attitudes to homosexuality – in my memory at least – barely surfaced in The Watchmaker but they are very present here: it is an ever present threat implicitly and explicitly made that it would be
prison if you were lucky, an asylum if you weren’t. Hard labour or electroshock therapy; and beyond that, he had no idea, because the newspapers couldn’t print those kinds of stories, and asylum doctors didn’t publish their treatments.
The threat of exposure is the ultimate insurance policy employed by Kuroda and his henchman Tanaka to ensure that Mori complied with their wishes and had not arranged for them to face any coincidental death. Well, that and a sequence of random events and randomly generated data from electrical fields which unsettle Mori who is unable to predict the truly random…
Does Pulley succeed in making Mori vulnerable? Absolutely! More vulnerable and brought more low than we have ever seen him! So vulnerable that he comes across as being a lot older and more frail than his forty-four years whilst Thaniel labours with tuberculosis alongside his synaesthesia.
The plot races along at a considerable lick, and rarely misses its beat. As often with Pulley we alternate between Mori and Thaniel’s present and Mori’s past, in particular his relationship with Pepperharrow, and I was equally invested in both sides of the narrative. Pepperharrow, to a degree, plays the same role as Grace Carrow did in The Watchmaker: she reminds Thaniel and the reader of the potential for and evidence of inhumanity in Mori – and there were some truly shocking things she had witnessed as his wife – yet with a tenderness and perhaps a love too which gave a greater depth to her character than Grace achieved.
And Pulley ties together the worlds of The Watchmaker and of The Bedlam Stacks beautifully and subtly. It makes me wonder whether we might see Thaniel and Merrick Tremayne, Mori and Raphael, in the future…
Plot / Pace:
Date: 5th March 2020