Book review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley is beautifully written but narrative threads are left hanging

The Bedlam Stacks is Natasha Pulley's second novel.
The Bedlam Stacks is Natasha Pulley's second novel.PHOTO: BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING

It is the middle of the 18th century. Former explorer Merrick Tremayne is called up by the East India Company to help Britain smuggle quinine seedlings out of Peru.

Merrick, injured in an earlier mission for the company, can barely walk a kilometre without his leg crumpling beneath him.

But, faced with nothing to look forward to except life in a parsonage and not wanting to end up as "that quiet, tired person in the corner", he sets off for the heart of Peru with anthropologist Clem, an old friend of his.

They are led by a native guide - the gruff, taciturn Raphael - into the fantastical interior of the Peruvian rainforest, which comes alive in Natasha Pulley's beautifully written and charming second novel.

Her explorers trek through a landscape where cliffs of glassy obsidian tower over gravity-defying whitewood trees and candle ivy spreads clouds of glowing pollen around the natives, who worship moving statues.

The mystery of these extraordinary things is unravelled gradually through this slow-paced book, where magical realism lends a dreamy, abstract quality to the work.



    By Natasha Pulley

    Bloomsbury Circus/Paperback/ 328 pages/$26.95/Books Kinokuniya

    3/5 stars

However, it also means the characters never seem to be in any real danger, even in situations that are supposed to be emergencies. In fact, it often feels as if the characters act in accordance with Pulley's desire to achieve larger plot goals, rather than with the dictates of logic.

When everyone decides that Clem - who has passed out several times from altitude sickness - is the best person to make a solo trip back through the Peruvian jungle to get help from town, Merrick and Raphael are conveniently left alone to establish a closer relationship, which proves pivotal to the book's outcome.

Many narrative threads are left hanging in the end, which ultimately leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied.

While The Bedlam Stacks' beautiful prose can - and does - cover a multitude of sins, it cannot quite hide the fact that the actual storytelling leaves much to be desired.

If you like this, read: The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, $19.94 from Books Kinokuniya), about a mysterious Japanese watchmaker living in London.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Narrative threads left hanging'. Print Edition | Subscribe