Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…
In The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.
I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)