Review: Inside the Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock (2020)

Blurb:

A marine without his ship. A man without his liberty.

When the locks can’t hold James Norris they chain him, and when the chains won’t stay James Norris they fix him to a stake. But they still can’t take the thoughts out of his head. He is a man shackled to his own tragedies: the commission he never took; the family and friends he lost; the lover who betrayed him.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Mutiny on the Bounty – an exploration of love, sanity, suffering, and compassion. Based on the true story of James Norris, an American marine who was chained to a stake for fourteen years in Bethlem, Hospital for the Insane (1800-15).

Will James Norris find what he is hunting for? Can he ever sail free?

Review:

I received a copy of this gorgeous book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Emma Dowson and Everything With Words for my copy. The cover design, by Holly Ovenden, is absolutely beautiful, and made me even more excited to dive into this novel.

The premise of Inside the Beautiful Inside put me in mind of Anna Vaught’s Saving Lucia, which I read earlier this year. Like Vaught, Bullock has taken a real historical figure, incarcerated in an asylum, and set them free in an imaginative sense. However, while both novels are utterly brilliant, the style could not be more different. Inside the Beautiful Inside uses simple language, truncated sentences, fragments and a rhythm as insistent as a pounding drum beat to carry the reader along. The energy is palpable, almost intimidating at first: it took me a few pages to adjust to the relentlessly kinetic prose. For some reason I am yet to put my finger on, it reminds me of one of my all time favourite writers, William Golding (possibly the maritime connection with his Rites of Passage trilogy; possibly a kind of macho energy that booms out of the page).

James Norris is a character rich with complexities and nuance. At first, his brusque seaman persona seems hard to penetrate, and his coarse language and bitter grudges keep the reader at a distance. But as the novel progresses and his past begins to invade the present, memories floating up from the deep, the distance dissolves, and we enter fully into his consciousness in a fascinatingly immersive way. I loved the permeable boundaries between memory and present experience, the way figures from his past appeared in his cell, the juddering sense of reality becoming fluid. His madness is questionable: at times he is entirely sane and lucid, and the horrors he undergoes at the hands of the keepers would be enough to send even the most reasonable man over the edge (Rodley’s amateur dentistry springs to mind as one particularly grisly example).

It is a real talent to be able to create characters through the mind of a single protagonist, and this book does it beautifully. We only ever meet Ruth, William, and (possibly) the infamous Fletcher Christian through James’s memories, and yet their stories become as much a part of the narrative as if they were ‘present’. There is a moment in the book when James describes these three relationships as points on a compass, and the depth of feeling and complexity that the author has worked into these relationships makes that moment all the more profound.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is a staggering work of fiction: utterly unique, unfathomably powerful, not a word wasted or a sentence spare. Taut, almost mercilessly paced, yet with a thin line of compassion running through it, this is a book that will stay with me for a long time. A final special mention must go to Davey, the finest ship’s cat I have come across in a novel. I was enthralled by this book, and I urge you to read it.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is published by Everything With Words on 24th September 2020 and is available to pre-order here.

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