The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (2017)

I was smitten when I read Natasha Pulley’s first book, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ a year or two ago, and so when I saw that a second book was being sent out into the world I knew that I had to rush out and buy a copy.

I’m so glad that I did. It was a lovely mixture of the familiar from the first book and the completely different and utterly right for this book; and it was set in the same slightly fanciful but utterly natural past that I wished could have been but that I know probably wasn’t.

At this point I should explain that this isn’t a sequel or part of a series, that there is a character who appears in both books, but that this is a different story set at a different time in that same world.

9781408878460

Merrick Tremayne is a horticultural expert and battered veteran of the East India Company’s opium trade. He’s retired to his family’s diapidated Cornish home after sustaining a serious leg injury, and, much as he loves the place, he is desperately sorry that his days of adventure are probably behind him.

They’re not of course, but he doesn’t know that.

He spends his days in the gardens and the greenhouses; and he is happy there but he is concerned that the estate continues to decay and that his brother, Charles, is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it, He’s also concerned that there seem to be explosions in the trees, and that the heavy statue that his father brought back from his travels seems to change position when he isn’t looking.

Charles doesn’t believe a word of it, and is inclined to believe that he is afflicted with the mental illness that sent their mother in an asylum. He tells Merrick that carrying on as they are isn’t an option: he can take on a small country parsonage or he can follow in his mother’s footsteps.

Fortunately help is at hand.

Merrick’s old friend, Clement Markham — a fellow adventurer and a peer of the realm — arrived with a wonderful proposition. Quinine supplies in India are running low and the government urgently needs a man who can travel to Peru, take some cuttings from the country’s quinine-rich cinchona trees, and make sure that they get to the sub-continent safely.

He says that Tremayne is their man.

He protested that his leg wasn’t up to the trip; he suspected – correctly – that there was more to the trip than he was being told; he knew that others had tried do the same thing and lost their lives in the process; but he was intrigued and he remembered that his father had told him stories about his own travels to that part of the world, and hinted that there were more stories that he couldn’t tell.

He joined the expedition.

It took him Merrick and Clem into the uncharted depths of Peru, to the town of Bedlam, a place that was both real and fantastical. There were lamps made of glowing pollen, there were exploding trees, there were rock formations of pure glass, and there was a border made of salt and bone that is was fatal to cross.

The two men reacted quite differently to these things, to other remarkable things they encountered and to the people they met. It became clear that they had different destinies …

I was drawn into this story from the very beginning – I loved the way that the fictional Tremaynes were insinuated into the family history of the real Tremayne family that used to live at Heligan – but even if I hadn’t known that very real place, where the lost gardens are open to visitors, I still would have been captivated.

I loved the way that Natasha Pulley told her story, and the way she held me at Merrick’s side as he made his extraordinary journey. Quite often I found that it wasn’t difficult to work out what was going on a little before he did, but I didn’t mind that at all because it was lovely watching all of his responses as he learned more and more.

The world he travelled through was so well realised, and the Peruvian jungle and the town of Bedlam felt wonderfully real and alive. The imaginative elements worked well because they came out of the natural world and old traditions, and they spoke of what makes up human. I particularly liked that way that those things sat against practical concerns, particularly the importance of a good cup of coffee.

The plot is so well constructed; and I loved that so much of the early part of the story in Cornwall was related to what happened to Merrick – and what had happened to his father – in Peru. I worked out a lot of things but I definitely didn’t work out everything, and I loved the final resolution, back in Cornwall again.

You could read this book that asks questions about life and faith; or you simply enjoy a lovely journey through a world that is both real and fantastical.

I was too caught up in the wonder of what I was reading to ponder the serious questions, but I saw that they were there and they gave the story weight without ever weighing it down.

I was sorry to leave the world of this book, but I know that I will go back one day to revisit this story and – I hope – to read new ones.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (2015)

I was intrigued by the title. I was intrigued by the synopsis.

I was smitten with the design of the whole thing.

Could a debut novel live up to this?

hero-portrait-the-watchmaker-of-filigree-street-cover

Yes, it could!

* * * * * * *

The story opens in London, and in a world that mixes the real and the fantastical in the loveliest of ways.

Nathaniel Steepleton – Thaniel – was a young  telegraph operator at the Home Office. His life was a dull routine; he had wanted to be a pianist, but he took  job so that he could help to support his widowed sister and her young children.

Grace Carrow, was an Oxford educated physicist, but her career was in jeopardy, because  her father would not give her an inheritance unless she was married and she could not find  a man to marry. Not ever her best friend, an aristocratic Japanese student would help her.

Two very different people, two very different stories, but there was a link.

Both Thaniel and Grace found themselves, quite inexplicably, in possession of watches that were both extraordinarily beautiful and unusually, exceptionally,  functional.

Those watches were made by The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Keita Mori was kinsman to a Samurai lord and he had been assistant to the interior minister of Japan. But he had travelled to London to pursue his vocation, to make the finest of watches.

Or had he?

Scotland Yard suspected that Mori’s mechanisms had been used in a series of bombs set by Fenians. What else would explain why Thaniel’s watch had opened for the first time when he was just feet from a bomb, and sound an alarm before, moments later, the bomb exploded? That bomb saved the telegraph operator’s life, and it led him to the watchmaker.

But Thaniel knew that the police were wrong. He was certain that the charming gentleman who created Katsu, the randomly programed, clockwork, sock-stealing octopus, who became his friend, wouldn’t use his wonderful skills to make bombs.

Grace and Thaniel had met by then, they had recognised something in each other, they had realised that they might help each other, and a relationship had blossomed.

But Grace agreed with the police.

What other explanation could there be …. ?

This story is beautifully and intricately crafted, and it’s clear that attention has been paid to every little detail of character, setting and plot. It rewards slow careful reading, because all of those details are important, they work together, and they draw you right into this finely wrought world.

The plot so cleverly constructed. Sometimes I could see where it was going, sometimes I couldn’t, but in the end it all made wonderful sense.

This is a book that asks questions about life; about how predictable, how predetermined, how comprehensible it might or might not be. You might chose to consider those questions, or you might want to simply enjoy the journey through this lovely book.

I’m sure that there’s much more that could be said, but I’m still caught up and enjoying the wonder of it all.

I could see the influence of other books and authors, but Natasha Pulley has taken those influences and built on them to create something quite distinctive of her own.

This isn’t the kind of book I read often, but  I have to say that I loved stepping into her world, and I would gladly step into it again.

* * * * * * *