I was delighted to receive an advance reader’s copy of ‘The Bedlam Stacks “ by Natasha Pulley to review, along with her first book: ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ from Bloomsbury Publishing.
I have to say that I really enjoyed both books, but today I have just finished ‘The Bedlam Stacks’ so I will focus on a review this book first while it is so fresh in my mind.
‘In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall, England, with an injury that almost cost him his leg. On the sprawling, crumbling grounds of the old house, something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pine explodes, 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 Merricks 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.’
My strongest reaction after reading this book is how beautiful the author writes. To me, it is reminiscent of reading a classic, in both language and description. The story is set in 1859 and by goodness Pulley transported me there within the first chapter. This really was a book that I couldn’t put down!
We are initially introduced to our protagonist Merrick, while he is back living in a tumbledown Country Manor house, which was inherited by his elder brother, Charles. Merrick was forced to give up his life as an explorer and an expert on botany, after he suffered an accident, which inhibited the use of one of his legs. Charles enjoys playing Lord of the Manor and seems to have little time for Merrick. He appears to enjoy pointing out all of Merrick’s perceived shortcomings. Merrick however, puts up with this treatment with little resistance, preferring to mind his own business and focus his attention on immersing himself into assisting the remaining gardening staff with the care and keeping of the grounds.
After stumbling upon the old neglected greenhouse that his grandfather installed many years prior, Merrick takes refuge there and finds comfort away from his brother’s bullying and his own feelings of uselessness culminating from his leg injury.
I loved Pulley’s description of the Manor and grounds. I could easily picture the dilapidated Mansion with the hole in the roof.
“Now there was a little carpet of pine needles over the middle of the floor. I twisted round to see upward. Although there were, on my side, three floors to the house, on this side it was just galleries off the staircase. The ceiling was the roof. Being windowless, it was usually gloomy, with deep shadows between the vaults of the rafters, but now there was quite a big hole. Right above it was a rotten branch still attached, just, to the old pine tree. It had been defying gravity for months.”
Merrick seeks refuge in his greenhouse, and once there, he notices that a statue that was watching over his father’s grave has moved. This has happened more than once but nobody believes him since the statue is much too heavy to be pushed or lifted by any person or persons on a whim. On this particular day Charles joins him in the greenhouse, and when Merrick ponders out loud over the moving statue, Charles suggests that Merrick is showing signs of madness and comments that he ought to have him committed to an asylum! This is not a comment to be taken lightly, since Charles had their mother committed several years earlier.
So when an old friend and colleague visits him later with a proposal he can’t refuse- to take Merrick with him on another expedition, this time to Peru; Merrick agrees, despite his disability. Thus begins a chain of events that will see Merrick face action and adventure, mystery and magic; and find friendship in unexpected places, all the while growing as a person. Merrick discovers that he has untapped strengths despite his leg wound, and his only limitations are those that he chooses to see as such.
I don’t want to give any spoilers away so I’ll stop sharing the story here, but let me tell you that this is just the beginning of a super story that will stay with you long after the last page is turned.
I love that Pulley doesn’t rush the story. She takes us step by step with Merrick through the Amazon and into danger. She builds up the atmosphere page by page, and gives us a slow burn of mystery and intrigue with a generous dose of magic mixed in.
I liked Merrick so very much. He was only in his late thirties yet I pictured him as being much older due to his mannerisms and thought processes. Whether this was because of his limitations of mobility or just his old fashioned ways, I can’t be sure, but he was immensely likeable from start to finish. I was routing for him at every moment. It seemed that he was the type that people like to bully, and the reader has to watch helplessly as his friends and family members push him against his grain in order to suit their own agendas.
This is not a fast paced adventure; so don’t expect instant gratification. Read it like a classic, enjoying the nuances of the language, the broad descriptive and the journey rather than the destination.
However, when you arrive at the destination, you will not be disappointed!
‘The bedlam Stacks’ was a fully immersive read for me, into the culture and history of Peru from the point of view of an upper class Englishman who had fallen on hard times and had been offered one more chance at adventure and redemption.
Pulley writes so convincingly as a man that I have to applaud her.
While this book is a stand alone, I can see plenty of scope for it to become a duology. I feel there are still some outstanding questions that I would like to see answered, and I believe there is more room for development left open- or perhaps that is wishful thinking on my part!
If I had one criticism, and to be honest I don’t -but lets just invent one and put it out there anyway for sake of balance- I would say that I wanted more chapters of the English home after the Peru adventure. Any further description of life in a sprawling English Country pile is heaven for me.
I unreservedly recommend this book. I wouldn’t ever have imagined that I would be interested in Peru as a setting if you had asked me in advance; yet, I thoroughly enjoyed every part of the journey through the Amazon. I would so LOVE to tell you about the magic (oh the magic) but it would break the spell, and we can’t do that.
The Bedlam Stacks is due for release in August 2017. Please put it on your #TBR