Merrick Tremayne was injured while working as a smuggler for the East India Company. He now resides, with a malevolent brother, at his family home in Cornwall. His father and grandfather had been to Peru and lived among the locals, and have left some evidence of their trip at the home.
The time was 1859, and Merrick had been persuaded to go back to the tiny village of Bethlehem, or Bedlam, in Peru, to steal some cuttings from the cinchona trees as they were needed for quinine to treat malaria, and were guarded by violent criminals who had the sole rights to the wood.
The East India Company had requested his help, and his friend, Clem, had also persuaded him to join the expedition. Even though he was severely compromised with his injured leg, Merrick joined the group as a means of escape from his home life.
After months of preparation, the expedition left for Peru travelling to the tiny village that was nearest to the trees from which they needed to steal cuttings. It was hard going, and they suffered from altitude sickness and the cold. A guide had been arranged to take them to their destination, and they arrived at a small village that had many reminders of pre- Incan times.
Much of the riverside was covered in obsidian, with the glass from the volcano reflecting the smallest bit of sunlight. There were many amazing and fantastic elements to this place. The priest they stayed with, Raphael, seemed to know about Merrick’s grandfather, but surely was too young to have met him. The massive stone statues, that Raphael tended carefully and lovingly, seemed to be alive, while the line between the village and the forest was marked with salt; anyone who crossed that line would be shot or murdered.
As the story unfolds, the reader wonders how the cuttings beyond the forest will be collected, and how Merrick will complete this task, to save the village. There are so many complex and interesting aspects to this amazing adventure story, that to stop reading is not an option. The development of the relationship between Merrick and Raphael, is engaging, while the imagery is vivid and vibrant. Merrick says of the small village, “I felt like I had drawn a door on the wall at home in chalk, and gone through into an imaginary place where the river was a dragon, and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves.”
The scope of the task, the magic surrounding the travellers and the genuine affection that develops between characters, is a joy to follow. Although the writer begins the tale slowly, we discover that she is actually leaving clues, and making later issues meaningful.
The Bedlam Stacks needs careful reading, and slow appreciation of the wonderful local stories, the adventure, intrigue, and above all, the magic.