Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
‘This expedition isn’t really about the trees at all, is it? It’s about getting a decent map, for if – when – the army has to go?’
It’s 1859, and former East India Company employee Merrick Tremayne is trapped in his family’s decaying estate in Cornwall. Tremayne is disabled, having almost lost his leg in an accident. The British India Office is desperately trying to seek a source of quinine, which is required to treat malaria. Tremayne is approached to be part of an expedition to deepest Peru and, while he knows it’s a terrible idea, he agrees. After all, what can he do in Cornwall? Peculiar things are happening around him and his brother is convinced that Tremayne is mad.
Thus begins a slow-paced epic journey. Others have undertaken this journey before and few have survived it. And they were able-bodied men, whereas Tremayne can barely walk. Tremayne and his companion, his former naval colleague, Clements Markham. They are being sent to:
‘… steal a plant whose exact location nobody knows, in territory now defended by quinine barons under the protection of the government, and inhabited by tribal Indians who also hate foreigners and have killed everyone who’s got close in the last ten years.’
They arrive, Tremayne and Markham, with the help of the mysterious Raphael at the tiny Peruvian town of Bedlam at the edge of the Amazon. A salt line separates the town from the forest, and the line is closely watched. Those who cross it are likely to lose their lives. The cinchona trees are beyond the salt line and while Tremayne and Markham hope to find a way to the cinchona trees to take cuttings, they wait in Bedlam and learn more about the place and its people.
To write more detail of the story may spoil it for a first-time reader. Everything in this finely crafted world makes its own perfect sense. There’s magic in this place, and mystery. There is also the brief appearance of one character from ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’.
‘Forward was the past, behind was the future.’
I really enjoyed this novel, and am likely to reread it. Ms Pulley makes the fantastical seem plausible, the magical appear possible. Merrick Tremayne may be an unlikely hero, but he in his own words:
‘I was the stronger of us by far but I’d forgotten, because I was too used to feeling broken.’