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The Bedlam stacks
2017
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  New York Times Review

IT'S 1859, and a man named Merrick Tremayne is marooned in a moldering 20room house in Cornwall, the southernmost county in England. During his previous career as an opium smuggler for the East India Company, a shell smashed up one of his legs and he's making a slow recovery. From here Natasha Pulley, an English writer whose previous book was the wellreceived novel "The Watchmaker of Filigree Street," leads readers on an epic journey. This time the 30-year-old Tremayne is on assignment for the India Office, which has replaced the East India Company, and his aim is to travel to the Peruvian highlands to filch cinchona cuttings. (The bark of the trees, zealously guarded to maintain the local monopoly, yields quinine, in heavy demand as a treatment for malaria.) Also along for the mission is the explorer and geographer Sir Clements Markham, a real historical figure who traveled to Peru to fetch cinchona plants and seeds, and achieved fame in later life as the man who dispatched Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Pulley adroitly departs from the historical record to make the Peruvian story her own, turning it into a work of magic realism. Sinister statues called markayuq move like "howling carvings," having once existed as real people. Raphael, the expedition guide, has a form of catalepsy and sleeps for decades at a time. An ancestral theme emerges as we learn that Tremayne's father and grandfather once lived in Peru, and that the elder man knew Raphael well in one of the guide's previous incarnations. The plot, narrated by Tremayne in the first person, is intricate, even byzantine, with skillfully folded-in flashbacks. (One chapter records the episode when a shot from a British Navy ironclad shattered Tremayne's leg; another follows Tremayne's grandfather into the Peruvian forest in 1782.) Pulley's tale is equally strong on topography, conjuring the intense cold of the highlands, its air "grainy with snow," as well as a "frisky" river and the hot smell of the salt pans. Golden pollen floats "like luminous icing sugar." The stacks of the novel's title are phantasmagorical blue obsidian towers in the village of New Bethlehem, also known as Bedlam. Over 600 feet high, they're more glass than rock. The previous cinchona seekers to set out for the Cara vaya forest had perished. After Tremayne and Markham's Indian servants run away, taking the pack mules with them, bizarre plot twists ensue. Raphael shoots a man in the head. Ducks explode. A dead man swings from a cliff with a sign around his neck that reads, in Spanish, "I stole quinine trees." Roman Catholicism, native beliefs and Incan traditions blend in a seamless weave of spirituality and superstition. A lottery takes place to find new parents for a baby in a "hospital colony" whose members are "all twisted, or missing limbs or eyes." Lots of yeasty direct speech leavens the mix. Violence and danger shimmer in the air like that pollen. Eyes watch through "the pinstriped darkness." Mitigating all this, Pulley evokes a growing tenderness between Tremayne and Raphael, a redemption of sorts. "It would have been good, always to wake up in this way," Tremayne remarks after admitting, when the pair share a tent, that he had never before lain beside anyone. With pleasing symmetry, the story includes references to watchmakers and Filigree Street, linking "The Bedlam Stacks" to Pulley's first novel. So it's no surprise when this book ends with a jump forward to 1881, alighting first in Cornwall and then in a Peruvian monastery for a reunion between Tremayne and Raphael, just waking up from a 20-year sleep. SARA WHEELER'S books include "Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2011."

  Publishers Weekly Review

On account of a leg injury, botanical expert Merrick Tremayne, the hero of this witty, entrancing novel set in the 19th century from Pulley (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street), initially declines to travel from England to Peru for the East India Company. Because Merrick insists that a heavy statue overlooking his father's grave has mysteriously moved, Merrick's half-brother, Charles, worries that he's afflicted with the mental illness that landed their mother in an asylum. To avoid either of the unpleasant choices that Charles offers out of fear for Merrick's sanity (taking work at a parsonage where he'd no longer see the statue, or being confined with their mother), Merrick joins the treacherous expedition, whose ostensible purpose is to retrieve cuttings from the rare trees that are the only source for quinine, needed to alleviate a malaria epidemic in India that has adversely affected the company's business. On arrival in Peru, Merrick encounters more oddities, including animated statues that give benedictions and a border made of salt and bone that is fatal to cross, which cause him to feel that he has entered "an imaginary place where the river was a dragon and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves." His quest to both stay alive and to obtain the precious cinchona plants leads to more marvels-and to tragedy. Pulley makes the fantastic feel plausible and burnishes her reputation as a gifted storyteller. Agent: Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates (U.K.). (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
<p> An Indie Next Pick <br> <br> The eagerly anticipated new novel from the author of THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET--a treacherous quest in the magical landscape of nineteenth-century Peru. </p> <p>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. On the sprawling, crumbling grounds of the old house, something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather's pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.</p> <p>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 crossesis killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.</p> <p>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.</p>
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