The Bedlam Stacks

Written by Natasha Pulley
Review by Jackie Drohan

This immensely readable novel set in Victorian England provides a frolicsome yet compelling examination of history, determinism, and the borders of reality.

The story centers on the East India company sponsorship of an expedition to Peru during the 1850s led by Sir Clements Markham. Clem recruits the primary character, Merrick, whose expertise with botany and knowledge of the region makes him indispensable to the venture. The goal is to bring back cuttings from the elusive chinchona woods. Merrick’s father had passed on much of his local experience gleaned from years in an Indian mission village, mapping some but not all of the area, stating “there are things that shouldn’t go on maps.”

Merrick is hesitant. The expedition leads to areas he may not be able travel through, having been partially incapacitated with an injured leg. Faced with losing his father’s estate and becoming a parson at a local village, however, he decides to risk the opportunity to preserve both his own prospects and his father’s legacy.

The journey leads them to uncharted areas where magic, tradition and spirituality exist in a mysterious secret society. The jungle is a character unto itself and serves as a vivid metaphor of the boundaries between life and death, magic and reality. A new friendship is forged with the young priest Raphael, through whom Merrick is able to grasp the intensity of what he experiences and understand the need for secrecy first inspired by his father.

The story’s rich detail provides the reader a clear experience of 1850s Peru while imparting believability to its magic and imaginative elements. Its exciting style, humor and uniqueness are nothing short of charming. Enthusiastically recommended.