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.
As I turned the last page of The Bedlam Stacks I had a lump in my throat, my lips were quivering, and I was on the edge of tears. This is a very rare occurrence.
The Bedlam Stacks is one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever read. It may sound hyperbolic, but this is the kind of book that seems like it was formulated to appeal to me. Set in the 19th century, primarily in Peru via Cornwall and China, with dreamy philosophical discussion of time and language, complex and enthralling relationships; and all of it beautifully expressed in words just on the right side of poetic.
“It was a miniature realisation, that I’d forgotten about the Dutch expedition, but it had lit a little miner’s lamp somewhere in those lost places in the pit of my mind.”
Merrick is a fascinating narrator. He’s complex, empathetic and possesses rare and subtle understanding.
If it doesn’t sound too strange, he’s the kind of character you wished you knew in real life. But he’s also relatable in his weaknesses; in his frustration about his injured leg and his anxiety about whether Raphael really wants him there or if he’s just a stand-in for someone else.
I liked the slow drip feed of information about Merrick’s past, including his less than savory career smuggling opium for the East India Company in China. He himself acknowledges that his work for the company moulded him into a certain kind of person; tough and pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, which becomes evident as the present-day action of the novel unfolds. I liked the portrayal of the East India Company in general; I don’t know that much about it, but I think the book captures its spirit of brutal efficiency and lack of scruples in pursuit of a profit.
“I had only a hazy idea of where the walls built by the good men were, and what they walled in or out.”
The most appealing part of the novel, and the main thing that made me want to cry, is the relationship that develops throughout its pages; the ideal definition of a slow burn love story. It is an understated and glowing portrait of the growing intimacy and understanding between two people, with no unnecessary drama inserted to complicate it. My favourite moment might have been when one person wakes up next to the other, all they’ve done is literally sleep together, and quietly realises that he would be very happy if he woke up like this every day for the rest of his life.
Raphael, the priest of the mission colony, is an incredible character. He subverts expectations from the moment he appears in the narrative; swearing fluently in English, making ironic jokes, and with a hilariously petty hatred of a chicken kept in a garden. Raphael truly cares for the people of the village, and is a very strong figure, but is also shown to be vulnerable in several ways. He also breaks your heart into a million tiny little pieces, so there’s that.
“There was no need for anything as strong as pointing. It would have looked like a firework.”
The supporting characters flesh out the world of the novel well. Merrick’s friend Clem is an interesting, multi-layered character, and his wife Minna is lovely. I haven’t read Pulley’s previous novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street but am now very curious about one of its characters, Keita, who has an extended cameo of sorts in this book. One of the inhabitants of the village, a woman called Irra is, quite simply, the best. She’s funny, matter-of-fact and not afraid to make Raphael chase after birds in her garden. We don’t see much of the other inhabitants of the village, but they are portrayed with warmth and sensitivity.
“Translation from a language unrelated to English is nothing to do with equivalent words…I had to forget the English, hang the meaning up in a well-lit gallery, stare at it hard, then describe it afresh.”
One of the themes explored by the novel is translation, and the question of whether it is possible to convey meaning across two totally alien languages. Raphael expresses a hatred of bad translation and we see the difficulty of translating certain spiritual and religious concepts from the indigenous language Quechua into Spanish and English while still preserving the tone and associations created by the words. It’s like Merrick says after Clem uses the word idol instead of shrine, it’s as if someone translated Christchurch as “Heathen God Temple”.
Personally, I’m fascinated by the concept of translation, and the question of whether it is ever possible to fully translate something so a non-native speaker will understand it in the same way as a native speaker. I was recently in Portugal, and asked a shopkeeper to translate a José Saramago quotation painted on a tile for me. She and another man discussed it animatedly for a while before eventually trying to explain it to me, and even then said it was impossible to express exactly what it said, because it is poetry.
“What’s gone before you, and what will come after,’ I said instead.
‘The past ahead. Time is like a river and you float with the current. Your ancestors set off before you did, so they’re far ahead. Your descendants will sail it after.”
This discussion around communication and translation keeps pulling and pushing along the whole novel, and Merrick maintains that although exact translation may not always be possible he believes that two human beings will always be able to communicate with each other, which I agree with. I guess it all boils down to how optimistic you are; how much you believe we are all the same.
I would recommend The Bedlam Stacks to everyone, especially fans of historical fiction and magical realism, or just those who like to read about characters you love growing to love each other.
Summary from Goodreads Quotations from The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley