Inside the Beautiful Inside

Written by Emily Bullock
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

An etching by George Arnaud from 1814 depicts a middle-aged man held chained to a stake with an iron ring around his neck, another iron bar around his chest and his arms pinioned to his sides. This inmate of Bedlam, the Bethlem Hospital for the insane, was James Norris, an American Marine, who was had been restrained in that way for about ten years of the fourteen he had spent incarcerated, before his case attracted the attention of the Quaker philanthropist Edward Wakefield and a parliamentary select committee on madhouses followed.

Bullock’s tour de force of a novel gives Norris voice at last. In Bullock’s telling, Norris believes he is being taken from a Sailors’ Mission to his ship, but instead finds himself locked up as a lunatic. Here he imagines he sees Fletcher Christian, ringleader of the mutiny on board the Bounty, on which Norris served, the source in his disintegrating mind of all his woes and his driving obsession – along with Ruth, the woman Norris loved.

Bullock describes Norris’s incarceration as a descent into the circles of Hell, condemned as an incurable, first roped, then chained and left to the mercy of his brutal and incompetent jailors and doctors. His only balm until Wakefield’s first visit, is, for a while, the company of a cat. But the more his movements are restricted, the further Norris’s imagination wanders, back through his sailings, his New England childhood, his relationship with Ruth, and Fletcher Christian’s betrayal. The novel is narrated entirely by Norris, in wonderfully rich language delivered in often staccato sentences. A new inmate arrives: “his coat looks soft as a rabbit’s ear… [his] red hair blazes… [the apothecary] follows him like a fly after shit”. This is an utterly absorbing read.