I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Published by Bloomsbury USA on August 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, 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.
After reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street in one evening, I fell in love with Natasha Pulley’s writing. The summary for The Bedlam Stacks hinted at a story full of mystery and promised grand adventures in Peru so I was incredibly excited to get started on this book. Additionally, I am easily lured in by a gorgeous cover. The Bedlam Stacks was written in the same beautiful prose as Pulley’s previous novel but ultimately lacked the drive and intrigue that had swept me away in Watchmaker. However, I think if I had gone into the novel with different expectations, I would have loved it.
The premise of this story was full of promise. The story begins with a literal bang as an ancient tree brought back from Peru explodes in Merrick’s ancestral home. Add in a quest from the East India Tea Company for quinine and I thought the story was going to be a grand adventure full of mysteries, danger, and maybe just a hint of magic. It was, just at a much slower pace than I had expected. This is not a novel to read if you want a fast-paced plot that focuses on action. The Bedlam Stacks develops slowly, creating beautifully developed characters and settings that leap off the page. At times the plot progressed too slowly for my tastes, but I am sure that other readers will love how descriptive the book is due to the slower pace.
As much as the book focused on the quinine journey, it was also about Merrick’s journey to become whole again. After an incident almost cost him his leg, Merrick doesn’t quite know who he is anymore now that he isn’t a smuggler. Merrick pushes himself physically and mentally throughout the book, evolving into something entirely new and magnificent to see. I never quite fell in love with him but I enjoyed watching his journey. Clem and Mina were both wonderfully interesting characters. However, I wish we had seen more of Mina throughout the novel since female characters were somewhat lacking. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Raphael, the man of mystery. As his layers were slowly unraveled and Bedlam’s secrets discovered, I grew to love and respect him.
Natasha Pulley’s genius as a writer is evident on every page of The Bedlam Stacks and I will absolutely be picking up any future novels she writes. The magical realism is flawlessly intertwined with the historical aspect of the novel, creating something entirely new. If you’re in the mood for beautiful writing and detailed, rich descriptions, The Bedlam Stacks will be a book that you’ll enjoy.