‘They say I’m mad – I say they’re mad – I lost the flip – That’s me locked up in Bethlem Hospital – “Come boys, who’s for Bedlam?”‘
Personally, as an avid devourer of all things in written form, the sense of utterly losing oneself within words is a tough feeling to beat on an emotional/sensual level. On those occasions when the creative force possesses the skills to fully immerse us within their world, via a strong first-person perspective, there is no better feeling than to see this through the eyes of a thoroughly well-crafted character. Inside The Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock (published by Everything With Words) is such a grand occasion, worthy of our literary senses to throw a party, open up the Prosecco, turn on the karaoke machine and don the glittery, disco trousers in celebration of a very talented author in full, creative flow.
Plot-wise, the novel is based upon an actual historical figure. In the late 18th century, James Norris was a marine; British by conception, American by birth. Although tough and hardy, James finds himself imprisoned within London’s notorious ‘Bethlem Hospital for the Insane’ in 1800. It is here where we first encounter James as he struggles to cope with the psychological aspects of his strict – and often brutal – confinement.
As a side plotline, we also know that James has personal issues with a certain Christian Fletcher; famously renowned for his role in overthrowing Captain Bligh on the ‘HMS Bounty’ in Polynesian waters during 1789. Once upon a time, James and Christian were brothers of the sea; bound by their experiences and locked in deep friendship. However, we soon learn that James now holds Christian Fletcher in utter contempt, now wishing only to brutally end his life. All James needs to do is to somehow escape the considerable perils of Bethlem Hospital, known to its inmates since its conception in the 1400’s as ‘Bedlam’. Once free, James can pursue his illustrious foe and kill him.
It’s a simple plan. Yes, the guards are both numerous and brutal. True, James has been told he only has months left inside the asylum before being released, but can anything that he sees, or hears, be trusted? Can James rely upon his natural marine abilities to overcome all odds? How will the guards and doctors react if he does so? As readers, we are with James every step of his tortured journey; constantly searching for any speck of hopeful light in this world of twisted, tormented darkness.
As can be imagined, in terms of literary genres, this subject matter comes with layers of added depth and emotion. As our narrator and guide, Emily steers us through every step of James’ perilous voyage with considerable ease. For this, she is to be soundly applauded, for at times the narrative intrudes into very personal areas, including loss of mental balance, brutality and illness.
Emily’s chosen writing style is paramount to the success of her narrative. In a harrowing, mind-altering world, which could easily drag the reader down into woeful contemplation, Emily’s writing style tends to adopt a series of short, punchy sentences, often containing only a singular verb. This strongly reminded me of being back at university and being introduced to writing in ‘streams of consciousness’, whereby thoughts and ideas ‘tumble’ out in a rapid form, as expressed here with James laying upon his bed and returning to his childhood.
‘I am twelve years old. Laying flat on my front, up in the hayloft. Dust and husks skip in the air about me. I’m supposed to be turning the hay, but I’ve fallen asleep in the warm gloom. Arrows of daylight cross the loft floor. I was dreaming of a battle, leading the cry on a bright, white horse, men cheering. Rub my eyes. There’s a creaking noise behind me. I roll over. And she’s there, in the far corner, under the eaves.’
This style greatly helps with the pace of relaying the story, as well as focusing upon a very personal, individual narrative from the main character, through whose eyes and senses we become aware of everything going on. Thus, as James’s world becomes darker, we gain great clarity about his current mental well-being on any given page of the book.
This is skilful writing at its peak and allows us to slip easily into James’s life, his hopes, fears and state of mind. James is strong and we’re naturally rooting for him. Not because he is a paragon of virtue, but due to the fact that he has been well-crafted for us by an artisan writer. Yet also, we hold a natural degree of trepidation that he might not get out of this wholly intact; either physically, emotionally, mentally or a combination of all three. The mere fact that we care is entirely down to Emily’s impressive characterisation.
This is a mighty, insightful and powerful book guaranteed to instil thoughts that will cling to the memory for considerable years ahead. As with her 2015 début novel,The Longest Fight, which I was fortunate enough to review for Ink Pantry, Emily’s research skills are impeccable and it thoroughly shows throughout every page of the writing here.
Highly impressive and a must-read. More please, Emily.
‘I’ve left footprints on a glacier – I’ve seen the Sun burst out of the Atlantic – I’ve eaten sweet papaya from a low-hanging tree in Tahiti – I’ve glimpsed Paradise – Life made sense when I was all at sea.‘
Emily Bullock won the Bristol Short Story Prize with the story ‘My Girl’, which was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She worked in film before pursuing writing full time. She has an MA in 19th Century Literature from King’s College, London, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and completed her PhD at the Open University, where she teaches Creative Writing. Her debut novel, The Longest Fight was shortlisted for the Cross Sports Book Awards, and listed in The Independent’s Paperbacks of the Year.
Emily’s author page at Myriad books.