The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

This is Natasha Pulley’s second novel. I remember seeing lots of very positive reviews of her first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a year or two ago and thinking it sounded interesting. I never got round to reading that book, but when I heard about her new one, The Bedlam Stacks – which sounded just as intriguing – I decided to give it a try.

Set mainly in Peru in 1860, The Bedlam Stacks is narrated by Merrick Tremayne, a former opium smuggler and an expert in botany. Confined to his family estate in Cornwall due to a leg injury, Merrick is trying to come to terms with the fact that he will now have to put his adventuring days behind him and find something else to do with his life. Just as he is beginning to lose hope, his old friend Clem Markham arrives with a request from Merrick’s former employers, the East India Company. To tackle the problem of treating malaria in India, a supply of quinine is urgently needed – and Merrick’s expertise with plants makes him the ideal person to travel with Clem to Peru to take cuttings of the quinine-rich cinchona tree.

At first Merrick is reluctant to agree, knowing that his disability will make it difficult for him to travel through dangerous terrain – not to mention the fact that the Peruvians have a monopoly on the trees and are not about to let anyone else steal them. The alternative, though, is to stay at home and follow his brother’s suggestion of becoming a parson, so it doesn’t take him long to reach a decision! Venturing into the uncharted depths of Peru, Merrick and Clem finally arrive in the holy town of Bedlam, a place where the boundaries between magic and reality begin to merge.

The magical realism elements in The Bedlam Stacks are much more dominant than I had expected. There are moving statues, exploding trees and several other surprises which I will leave you to discover for yourself! This wasn’t really to my taste – I think I would have found it just as enjoyable to read a novel about an expedition to Peru that was based entirely on fact, without the touches of fantasy – but it was certainly imaginative and original. I did love the concept of the Markayuq statues, which apparently really exist and are still found in the countryside in Peru, originally thought to be guarding the villages. Natasha Pulley finds a clever and fascinating way to incorporate these into the story, but again I don’t want to say too much.

The sense of place is very strong – there are some wonderful descriptions of the Peruvian landscape as well as vivid accounts of more practical considerations such as the altitude sickness experienced during the journey – but I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger sense of the time period. Neither Merrick’s narrative voice nor the dialogue between the characters felt convincingly Victorian to me; the choice of words and phrases, the grammar and the structure of sentences just weren’t right for the 19th century. I’m aware, though, that I can be a bit pedantic about anachronistic language used in historical novels and I know it’s not something that bothers everyone!

I did find a lot to enjoy in The Bedlam Stacks, although I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for Natasha Pulley’s books, but I’m still glad I’ve tried this one – even if not everything worked for me, I can understand the appeal!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

23 thoughts on “The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

  1. Margaret says:

    I enjoyed The Watchmaker of Filigree Street when I read it last year. I wasn’t sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity.

    It looks as though I’d enjoy The Bedlam Stacks too – I quite like some fantasy so long as it’s not too whimsical. I did like the fantastical elements in her first book – it’s more clockwork fantasy than magical fantasy, but I found it quite hard to fathom.

    • Helen says:

      This book is clever and complicated too, so probably quite similar to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I’m sure if you enjoyed that book you will like this one as well.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I did not like Watchmaker and part of the problem was the anachronistic language and general sense of the period not being well understood represented — the female protagonist did lots of things that would not have flown in Victorian England, for example. But apparently I’m more picky than lots of other readers, too, because so many people loved it. However, with your opinion on this one I feel better about giving more Pulley a miss.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only who gets irritated by anachronistic language and behaviour! I don’t think I will be reading Watchmaker – it sounds as though I would have the same problems with that book as I had with this one.

      • Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

        Maybe we should form a club in which we recommend only books that pass the anachronism test… Though I can stand a certain amount, and don’t expect modern authors to be 100% accurate (impossible), there are some books that just are too sloppy for me!

  3. cirtnecce says:

    I have always been on the threshold of reading/not reading this book. I really like the plotlines but then I am not sure about the magical realism part! I think I will await a while before I take this on!

    • Helen says:

      I’m not usually a fan of magical realism and if I had known it played such a big part in this book I’m not sure if I would have read it. I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to try it!

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    Wow, this sounds great to me! I have been having a fantasy/magical moment lately, in case you haven’t noticed-:) I am about to start reading Behold the Dreamers and yesterday looked up Cameroon, the country of origin for the immigrants in the novel. I learned that it was quinine which enabled the conquests of empire in India and Africa, because otherwise everyone succumbed to malaria. Thanks for your review!

    • Helen says:

      Maybe this would be more your kind of book than mine. I think you would like the magical elements. It’s interesting to think of how important quinine has been to the history of the world!

  5. Carmen says:

    Too bad that certain elements of this novel did not appeal to you. I, too, am finicky when it comes to authenticity in language and character situations in historical novels.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, a lack of authenticity can really pull me out of the time period and stop me from enjoying a book. This one has been getting a lot of great reviews, though, so it obviously has more appeal for other people than it did for me.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I keep being tempted by these because the titles and covers are so great and the blurbs always sound intriguing. But I’m not a fan of magical realism (I don’t even think the expression makes any sense!) so I suspect those aspects would annoy me. And from what you say about the language, I’m pretty sure my inner pedant would be peeved too. Thanks for such an informative review! 😀

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the cover and the blurb for this one were both great, although it wasn’t clear that the magical realism elements would be so strong, otherwise I’m not sure whether I would have chosen to read it. At least I know now that Natasha Pulley is just not my sort of author.

  7. wellhopper says:

    This really isn’t the kind of novel that I would normally pick up, I only turned to it after hearing the author speak about it at a recent festival and talking to her afterwards. She stood out as being absolutely engaging and enthusiastic about her subject.

    Following that i thoroughly enjoyed the novel, despite the magic I did seem to find the whole process quite believable. I find her an excellent author, worth reading for the turn of phrase and the descriptive prose, aside from the plot.

    I must admit that i have followed this up by reading The Watchmaker, and find I am struggling a little more to get into this one. But overall, an interesting discovery.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this book more than I did. Despite the problems I had with it, I do think the author’s enthusiasm for Peru and its history shone through on every page, so I’m not surprised to hear she was an engaging speaker at the festival you attended.

  8. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I don’t often like magic realism or alternate reality, but both of Natasha Pulley’s books really drew me in and I loved them. I can understand why you and others haven’t been so taken with this book, but I loved the world that might have been but probably wasn’t.

  9. Jo says:

    I have this from netgalley and I have tried to start it once and couldn’t get on with it. I vowed to try again when I was in the right frame of mind but I am glad I am not the only one it hasn’t necessarily worked for. Thank goodness there are lots of books to choose from.

    • Helen says:

      This book just wasn’t really for me, but it’s possible that in a different mood I might have enjoyed it more. Sorry to hear you didn’t get on with it either.

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