Melmoth by Sarah Perry (Published by Serpents Tail 2018)
Sarah Perry had a huge hit with The Essex Serpent published in 2017, a Victorian Gothic tale, setting folklore and superstition against the scientific and social theories of the day, alongside a very human theme of forbidden love.
Melmoth is an altogether darker book, set in atmospheric Prague, which is the background for a story which ranges from mythic terrors to the traumas of the second world war and the consequences of moral failure.
Helen Franklin, is a lonely, lost character, English but working in self-imposed exile as a translator. She lives in penitential discomfort, punishing herself for undisclosed transgressions, intensely disliking her acerbic landlady, Albina. Her only friends are a warm, eccentric couple, Karel and Thea, who adopt her despite her reserved and awkward nature.
Karel befriends an elderly professor, Josef Hoffman, who is researching encounters with Melmoth the Witness. a legendary black-robed wraith doomed to wander the world in punishment for lack of faith and honesty. She haunts people who are desolate with loss and their own failings, offering comfort but ultimately draining the spirit and life from them. Hoffman becomes increasingly paranoid about being followed and watched by a shadowy figure. When he is found inexplicably dead at his desk in the City Library, Karel takes his notes and through these we learn more about these encounters and why Josef is so obsessed with Melmoth,
Karel shares the writings with Helen and Thea, and the novel moves into Josef’s life story, and what happened in Prague during the Second World War and its aftermath. They all gradually become haunted by the idea of Melmoth and glimpsed sightings of something sinister, until Karel mysteriously disappears.
Helen is left with Thea and Albina, all caught up in a sense of coming menace until a chance acquaintance changes the dynamic, but is she what she seems? The extraordinary dramatic climax reveals why Helen is riddled with guilt and trying to redeem herself, and what happened to Karel, leaving us with some sort of resolution and potential for hope.
Melmoth has layers of stories within stories. It is a gothic mystery, which draws the reader into sense of unease and anxiety. It explores the power of legends and folk myth, and what they may symbolise about human behaviour. It is also a testament to the horrors of recent, and current history. The cruelty that people can perpetrate against each other, sometimes inadvertently through lack of courage, failing to stand up for what they know to be right and the damage they do to their own soul in the process. The thrust of the novel seems to be that redemption comes from engagement.
Alex Preston, writing in The Guardian, said, “Melmoth is a good book, one that, for all its uncanny shudders, comes from a place of decency and good faith, a beacon against the darkest times. Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great literary achievements of our young century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.”
The book is engrossing and beautifully written. Dive in and you may begin to feel haunted yourself, not wanting to put the book down until the very end and, like every really good book, it will stay with you for days afterwards. It may be a book for dark winter nights, which is when I read it, but it might also be an easier read in long summer evenings when you could be safe from a glimpse of Melmoth in the shadows……
Review by Rosalind Turner
"Perry addresses the toll that atrocities take on those who bear witness in this extraordinary reworking of a 19th-century gothic novel" -Alex Preston - The Guardian
Biographical Notes: Sarah Perry