The Bedlam Stacks Sara Wheeler

The best thing about book reviewing lies in the discovery of a fine young writer, especially  a woman. In my field, travel, there aren’t enough women. But in the hybridy genre of narrative non-fiction one does a little better Just read The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. It begins In 1859, in a decaying 20-room house in Cornwall,  where Merrick Tremayne is marooned.  A shell smashed up one of his legs during  his previous career as an opium smuggler for the East India Company.

From there, Pulley leads the reader on 30-year-old Tremayne’s epic journey on another assignment for the India Office, which had replaced the East India Company, this time to filch cinchona cuttings from the Peruvian highlands (the tree yields quinine, the latter in heavy demand as a malaria prophylactic.) You could call this a work of magical realism. Sinister statues called markayuq  move like ‘howling carvings’, having once existed as real people; a central character, Raphael, the expedition guide,  has a form of catalepsy,  and sleeps for decades at a time.

The plot, narrated by Tremayne in the first-person, is intricate, even Byzantine, and Pulley skilfully folds in flashbacks (one chapter records the episode when a British Navy ironclad  shattered Tremayne’s leg three years before Peru); another describes Tremayne’s grandfather’s visit to the Peruvian forest in 1782.

Pulley is strong on topography. She conjures the intense cold of the highlands, its air ‘grainy with snow’,  a ‘frisky’  river and the smell of hot salt from the pans. Golden pollen floats through the pines ‘like luminous icing sugar.’  The eponymous stacks are phantasmagorical blue obsidian towers in New Bethlehem, which is known as Bedlam;  they are over 600 feet high, and more glass than rock.

Violence and danger shimmer in the air like the pollen.  Eyes watch through ‘the pinstriped darkness.’  Mitigating that, Pulley evokes a growing tenderness between Tremayne and Raphael; it is a redemption of sorts.  ‘It would have been good, always to wake up in this way,’  says Tremayne, after admitting, when the pair share a tent, that he had never before lain beside anyone in bed.

The story ends with a jump forward to 1881, first back in Cornwall, then finally to a reunion in a Peruvian monastery between Tremayne and Raphael.  The latter is just waking from a twenty-year sleep.

Highly recommended. You can read my review soon in the New York Times.