The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley
328 pages| Bloomsbury Circus| Genre: Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Magical Realism
The digest: Pulley’s writing has improved in almost every single aspect compared to her previous novel, making The Bedlam Stacks a work of historical fiction everybody should read. A genuinely engaging, focused, layered narrative which steadily builds momentum to culminate in a truly satisfying conclusion. I urge you to read this at your earliest convenience.
The Bedlam Stacks follows Merrick Tremayne, an ex-smuggler for the East India Trading Company, as he takes part in an expedition to hidden parts of Peru. The trip is funded by the now legitimized India Trading Co., the aim to locate some cinchona trees and take them to India – knocking over a monopoly for the only known Malaria treatment (the quinine, found in the trees’ bark). By the end of the narrative, Merrick’s eyes have been opened to a whole new world of magical realism which he hadn’t been aware of before he stepped onto Peruvian land, and we can see how he grows in each stage of the story. The narrative is highly entertaining and the author works hard to ensure that we can follow the story with ease. At the same time, the plot is not overly predictable and readers will enjoy a fair number of unforeseen exiting aspects. It is worth mentioning that The Bedlam Stacks is set in the middle of the 19th Century – a time of empirical rule where the rich white man can take control of anything if he sends enough Navy ships to the ‘problematic’ area – a key part of some chapters. Although the book is set during a period when colonialism was an expected part of Great Britain and its ruling elite, this novel takes a relatively modern approach in openly analysing the troubles caused by such expansion and control.
Pulley focuses here on one primary point of view (in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street there were three) for the most part, meaning that we can follow a well-connected set of events without unnecessary ambiguity. The multiple POVs was a major issue with her previous novel, where readers had to keep tabs of who knew what and when, whilst also not being convinced that there needed to be three perspectives in the first place. That issue has been rectified excellently, with the almost singular focus on Merrick meaning that one can more comprehensibly understand his thought process and feel the intensity of his situation as he does. In The Watchmaker, the changing perspectives could slow down the plot too much and gave me trouble keeping engaged through the intense scenes. I am more than happy to say that this is not the case here. Merrick is also a much more likeable character than those in Pulley’s prior work and whilst he is by no means perfect, one doesn’t have to work too hard to identify and empathise with him.
The setting is brilliantly described, the vistas and other locations (no spoilers) detailed in such a precise way as to enable readers to imagine the wonder felt by our cast of characters. Their excitement becomes our excitement, and the exotic flora and fauna are not lost on us. The novel also holds a wealth of historical and linguistic elements: both of which enhance the story to no end. Whilst the history of any given city reinforces tensions between different regimes (the use of Spanish in the mid-19th Century was still, it would seem, a fairly new ordeal which didn’t fully gel with remote areas of South America) and eras, its main benefit is that it allows us to always draw comparisons between the comfort and braveness of the leading cast. By this, I mean that we see how different characters react and interact with the reality of an unstable political situation, not just plodding around in their gardens growing exotic plants. The novel also shows the alienation of locals and the issues with colonialism (and unregulated capitalism) during an era where empires were in full swing. It is pleasing to see an author who is not afraid to shy away from important topics (nationalism played a heavy part in The Watchmaker), even when not all of the readership will have a solid grasp on historical identity politics.
The use of language acts as a constant reminder of the personal history of our characters, acting as a marker of their development and personal history from events prior to the novel. There are several poignant times throughout the novel brought about by the act of translation, but the linguistics also act to hone in on socio-cultural issues of the era. The mixture of Spanish, English, and Quechua adds an extra layer of realism and historical accuracy: of course purity of language (if such a notion exists) would become lost with international powers being at play. Pulley’s handling of this was firm but gentle: it didn’t take over the plot but was a constant reminder of the unease lying just below the surface of the characters’ identities. The focus on Spanish/ Incan tension is mentioned frequently, but never overstays its welcome.
It is refreshing to see an author improve in writing quality between two consecutive books – especially when they come so close together. Pully talks in the endnote of her experience learning Spanish and living in Peru for some time – I hope she continues this trend and writes more high-quality historical fiction soon! I recommend this book to fans of the genre with no reservations. If you liked the premise The Watchmaker of Filigree Street but you were disappointed by its flaws, I think you will be more than satisfied with this book.