The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

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Five stars, read in September 2017.

I’ve never read anyone who writes male characters the way Natasha Pulley does, and it’s irresistible to me. This book took longer to get going, but it’s also more polished than her first book; by the end, I’d fallen in love with Merrick and Raphael nearly as hard as I fell for Thaniel and Mori in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

The impression I get is that Pulley writes her characters gender-blind. The way most people write sex differences is so much more subtle than we even realize; they use different words, not just adjectives but nouns and verbs, too, and it permeates a text so completely that you can usually tell a character’s gender without seeing their name or pronouns. I think the reason I fall in love with Pulley’s male characters, and their relationships to each other, is that she writes them as fully rounded people—characters who are like real human beings, not stereotypes of masculinity.

There’s a lot to think about in The Bedlam Stacks, because it’s a story about Brits in Peru in the nineteenth century. The story itself is exciting and engrossing, following characters on an expedition to steal quinine for Britain’s India Office. I was struck by Pulley’s descriptions as they near their destination for the first time, high in the mountains.

Where there used to be a bridge of land, the river had worn through and made three towering stacks. Clem worked out later that they were six hundred and twelve feet high. I couldn’t see the tops of them properly, but around the bases were wharves, arranged like spokes, and then stairs and stairs and stairs, up to a tangle of wooden scaffolding that supported the corners of houses and spiralling gantries . . . The sun came out suddenly. Greenish blue shadows fell across the boat and turned the riverwater turquoise. The light was shining down through translucent parts in the stacks, which weren’t rock but glass. It had been worn shiny and clear by the weather and the river. When I put my hand out to the coloured shadow beside me, the light was hot . . .

I tripped into a well in the glass beach and thought for a long suspended instant that I was going to fall, but it was an illusion. The dip itself was only a few inches deep, but the glass was clear for about twenty feet. The bottom was a frozen riverbed. There were fish caught mid-turn around weed caught mid-furl. None of it was burned . . . Nearer the wharves, the smooth glass turned pebbly and green-blue shells lay heaped everywhere. Most of them were stuck to rocks just like ordinary shells would have been. The rocks themselves were all either obsidian entirely or half-vitrified, great chunks of glass and stone all twisted together. The granite made shapes like ink unwinding in water.

It’s a gorgeous setting: a mountain village set at the top of these 600-foot stacks, with a cliff on one side and dense, forbidden forest on the other. It’s through that forest that the quinine trees lie, across a salt line guarded by stone statues that seem, somehow, to be alive—and which the travelers are told will kill them instantly if they cross the salt. The forest is filled with a glowing pollen that leaves trails whenever something moves through it.

I was nervous about a white person writing historical fiction set in Latin America, and the most confident thing I can say about it is that Pulley is aware of the issues, though I’m not qualified to judge how respectful her representation was. The book as a whole is mildly critical of white imperialism, but (1) not as critical as I’d like it to be, and (2) you’d have to be willing to read the whole book to get that impression; I think if I were looking for signals only in the first few chapters without having known the author well enough to give her the benefit of the doubt, I might have given it up early on. It’s a tricky balance to work out, and I won’t pretend to know what the best way is to do it.

A couple weeks after finishing, seeing the cover of this book was still making me . . . is there a less dramatic word that is similar to “swoon”? And in looking back through to find that quote, now two months later, I’m almost deciding I need to read it again. Here’s the thing, though: This book is one that drew me in so completely, I spent an entire Saturday reading on the couchnever once feeling that I needed to do something else, never getting bored or stuck, just reveling in the way reading used to always feel for me. That’s significant. So far I have adored both of Pulley’s books, and I can’t wait for a third.

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