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Quinine, Magic Pollen, and the British Empire in Fiction

Hands down, my favorite book of 2016 (and possibly ever) was The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I read it with my Dessert Book Club, and every member either loved it or found some degree of enjoyment in it.1 And believe me — in the DBC, our tastes vary greatly, and it is rare that we all agree that a book is really, really good. We’ve all agreed that a book is really, really bad (looking at you, Sarah’s Key), but Natasha Pulley’s debut may be the only book to have earned a favorable consensus.

Needless to say, when the chance came up to snag an advanced reader’s copy of Pulley’s new book — The Bedlam Stacks — I jumped on it. And boy, I was not disappointed.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Without spoiling the best surprises of the book, I do want to acknowledge for fans that, while The Bedlam Stacks is not exactly a prequel to Watchmaker, it does exist in the same world. There are some minor (but, ultimately, monumental) intersections with the debut novel, which I realize is terribly cryptic, and I hope whets your appetite.2

The Bedlam Stacks is a marvelous foray into British imperialism and materialism in the late nineteenth century, with particular focus on the burgeoning quinine industry and the East India Company’s unquenchable desire to stop paying other Europeans for the life-saving medicine. Quinine was, of course, the key ingredient in the tonic that British soldiers and officers consumed extensively with gin to stave off malarial death. It was invaluable to the British Empire’s operations in India, where malaria was rampant and constantly undermining British attempts to subdue the natives. This underlying current of British imperial history is instrumental to my fascination with this book. But this is merely the context in which the actual story takes place, and it’s more a tale of love, friendship, magic pollen, a city above the clouds, and a (semi?)fictionalized Peruvian mythology of stone guardian saints.

In short, yes, absolutely get your hands on a copy of this book and savor every word of it. I cannot sing its praises loudly enough. But because I am an historian of Britain and its empire, that broader context (and the way the EIC and a distant India shaped this story) provided some of the most interesting parts.

Ex-EIC opium smuggler, sometimes gardener, and landed British aristocrat Merrick Tremayne is convinced by an old friend to get back into the illegal substance trade. The target, quinine, is hidden deep in the Peruvian forest. Tremayne happens to have some curious familial connections to the very village where some unexplored quinine cuttings might be obtained and the EIC will pay him handsomely for the enormously dangerous venture. The chinchona tree, from which quinine is extracted, was resistant to most transplantations because it prefers the higher altitudes and tropical climate, like that of Andean Peru. Tremayne’s horticultural and trafficking expertise make him the only candidate for the job. Despite – or because of – a badly mangled leg that prevents him from moving quickly or far, he ultimately agrees to go. An arduous journey, encounters with quinine monopoly gangsters, and bizarre magical episodes in the jungle follow.

(Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen | Wikimedia Commons)

Pulley’s narrator in The Bedlam Stacks is self-deprecating and saucy, and a stiff-upper lipped Victorian man, albeit one entirely roughened by a life of illegal gardening and smuggling. That he (like the characters of Watchmaker) finds some kind of happy ending in an undeniably deep, possibly romantic, male friendship with a supernatural being from an otherwise oppressed native population, is just icing on the cake.

The writing is snappy and vivid. The story plays out on a dilapidated country estate in Wales, and in the mountains of Peru, complete with altitude sickness and a landscape rife with the remains of the Incan Empire. There are suggestions that, though very different, these two settings are not that far apart. Magic has touched both places, time has forgotten both places, and there is danger wherever you look.

Of course the book is so much more than a story about quinine and the East India Company. There are priests who turn to stone, incredible cities carved from glass, and a budding friendship-that-might-be-something-more. But the central threads are a fascinating and thrilling use of imperial history. As one would expect of such a gifted storyteller, Pulley doesn’t present any of this background as a textbook narrative. Instead, it is seamlessly integrated, so flawless that it’s almost difficult to parse out what is history, and what is fiction.

These qualities, in fact, made me seriously consider assigning this as the historical fiction reading for the First Year Seminar I am running this fall with the new history majors at Mercyhurst University. I am constantly encouraging my students to think more broadly about what a historian is equipped to do, and ultimately, to become. While Pulley has her degree in creative writing, much of the work that she puts into her books is on par with the research that historians do.

Every semester I require students to dabble in writing historical fiction themselves, and as a methodology, it is a concrete way to show them the wider applications of a historian’s tools. The only reason I’m going with a different book is that I want to pick one written by someone with a history degree, to hammer that point home. But you can bet when we get to our historical fiction writing discussion, I will most definitely be recommending The Bedlam Stacks and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street to my students. I certainly recommend both to all the Nursing Clio readers seeking a fun and fanciful, historically informative read for their beach read and/or downtime. I can’t wait to see where Pulley pulls us next.

Notes

  1. The Dessert Book Club (of Buffalo, NY) was founded in June 2014 by Averill Earls, Kathryn Lawton, Elizabeth Korona, and Claire Collie. The group now has a steady cadre of 9 members, and meets all over the Buffalo region at dessert cafes, bakeries, ice cream shoppes, and each others’ homes (for cookie swaps and Halloween parties) to discuss books and sample sweets. Return to text.
  2. Spoiler alert. My one and only criticism is that The Bedlam Stacks needed way more Katsu. Return to text.

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