A journey into Bedlam: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
The Bedlam Stacks is a strangely enticing novel set in the nineteenth century about a dangerous expedition and the lengths one man ends up going to not only succeed in his venture, but also to sustain a newfound bond. Injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne is convinced by the India Office into one last adventure, a trip to New Bethlehem—a holy town known as Bedlam deep in Peru in areas uncharted by the British—to bring back cuttings of cinchona trees, whose bark contains quinine which will treat the malaria epidemic. Facing hostility on all sides once he reaches Peru, Tremayne discovers the secrets of the forest, makes an unlikely allegiance, and must fight to protect these and bring back the plants.
Pulley’s novel starts slowly and at first can appear an uninteresting colonialist tale, but it becomes mesmerising as Tremayne is drawn further into the Peruvian world. Part of this is due to his first person narration: initially he seems like an expeditionary gardener stuck in a British colonial viewpoint, but his sense of wonder, his attitudes towards the native people and the Quechua language, and his forging friendships there like his grandfather did before him make the novel engaging and make him a character who really becomes something special. Pulley avoids a lot of obvious plot points or ideas, instead making an unexpected and enjoyable narrative.
As with the narrative pace, at first it seems overly colonialist, focused on British forces and the East India Company, but again, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the focus is more upon Incan and other Peruvian culture and life in the nineteenth century, including the mysterious elements centred around Tremayne’s guide Raphael. Raphael is also the book’s most interesting character and the varied relationship between him and Tremayne is a real highlight and a crucial part of the second half of the novel.
The Bedlam Stacks is a great new novel for historical fiction fans who enjoy adventure, non-British cultures, and a mystical sense of both the past and the present. It is a book that questions belief, reinforces similarity over difference, and shows how someone who feels an outsider in society can find allies and a place in another.