Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks moves slowly through its introductory material. After reading the first third of the book, I checked Goodreads to see whether I should continue. Enough reviewers called it a “slow burn” that I stuck with it. At times, all the pretty and overwritten details reminded me of The Night Circus, but The Bedlam Stacks has more plot, more answers, and more interesting mythology.
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.
When I say some details of The Bedlam Stacks are overwritten, I mean that too many small moments are given too much attention. Decent dialogue doesn’t require a description of a character’s tone or gestures after each line. As is, the writing feels very self-conscious, as though Pulley fears being misunderstood. I’m sympathetic because I used to write this way. If one of my characters was going to change their mind over the course of a conversation, I wanted to show their transformation via eyebrow twitches, chuckles, and whatever other facial tics I thought were subtle at the time. I spelled out everything. Unfortunately, sympathizing with this writing style doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it.
Paragraph-by-paragraph, Pulley’s overly-detailed prose is lyrical. It conjures clear images, no easy feat once things take a turn toward the fantastic and magical. But after a few chapters, the unnecessary details snowball into an avalanche. It takes Merrick too long to leave for Peru because he can’t go before encountering some moving statues and exploding trees at home. I think these scenes are meant to be an intriguing taste of what’s waiting for him in Peru, but all they really say is “if this story ever gets going, it might be interesting.” The premise is great, but be warned: You’ll wait a long time for a payoff.
It’s true that I did not enjoy reading The Bedlam Stacks, but some elements are clever. The moving statues kept me reading as did the forest. The forest is full of glowing pollen which leaves trails when disturbed, so it’s home to some spectacular chases. Both the statues and forest benefit from Pulley’s tendency to overwrite because they’re so beautiful, creepy, and interesting that you’ll want the maximum level of detail.
I’m trying to think of something nice to say…but I like tight, concise writing and this book is bursting with the opposite. Pulley’s #1 trick to convey importance/foreshadowing is to add more and more details and repeat them over and over. But maybe she has a point: How can we know cinchona trees are rare/valuable if we aren’t told over and over? How can we know Raphael is unusual if we don’t read about his surprising strength and cold hands a dozen times? How can we know the plot is high-stakes unless it can only be solved via deus ex machina? Wait, that last question raises a whole other issue…
Overall: 2.4 Everyone loves this book on Goodreads/Amazon so far. Usually, it doesn’t bother me to have a different opinion than most, but it feels icky to criticize a book that was provided by the publisher. However, I feel it’s important to maintain standards on this blog. My favorite bloggers to follow are those with similar taste to mine—when they recommend a book, it’s a safe bet I’ll like it. I assume at least some of my followers stick around for the same reason, so I can’t give overly warm reviews to books I don’t actually enjoy.
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury USA (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads