The Gulf Today - Panorama - - BOOKS - By Lucy Sc­holes

The Es­sex Ser­pent, Sarah Perry’s last book — which was a Sun­day Times num­ber one best­seller and Water­stones Book of the Year 2016 — reads like a long lost fin-de-siè­cle Gothic clas­sic. Mel­moth, mean­while, re-writes an early 19th-cen­tury Gothic clas­sic for the mod­ern age. Charles Ma­turin’s Mel­moth the Wan­derer (1820) told the story of a man trapped in peri­patetic pur­ga­tory af­ter trad­ing his soul for 150 years of ex­tra life.

In Perry’s ver­sion of the story, she turns the tit­u­lar fig­ure into a woman: Mel­moth the Wit­ness. As in Ma­turin’s orig­i­nal, sto­ries nest within sto­ries, and it’s by means of a col­lec­tion of let­ters, diary en­tries, foot­notes and end­notes that the whole is pieced to­gether.

Perry be­gins her nar­ra­tive in con­tem­po­rary Prague, where 42-year-old He­len Franklin lives in “ex­ile,” her lonely, plea­sure-free life self-im­posed penance for a ter­ri­ble sin com­mit­ted two decades pre­vi­ously. But from here, Perry’s story un­furls back in time and across the globe — from 17th-cen­tury Eng­land, via Turkey dur­ing the Ar­me­nian geno­cide, and Cze­choslo­vakia dur­ing World War II, to the sweat-soaked streets of Manila in the late 20th-cen­tury. Fol­low­ing so many dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive threads cer­tainly takes con­cen­tra­tion, but Perry thor­oughly in­hab­its each, some­times al­most to their detri­ment. The only con­stant is pain and tor­ment; and where these are found, so too Mel­moth dwells. The deep melan­choly of Mel­moth makes for a jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion with the lively ex­u­ber­ance of The Es­sex Ser­pent.

Herein lies Mel­moth’s truth. De­spite ap­pear­ances, it’s not a novel about the su­per­nat­u­ral; the real mon­sters in Perry’s tale are or­di­nary hu­mans — a bu­reau­crat just do­ing his job; a young woman too scared to tell the truth; a boy be­sieged with anger and envy — hu­man cru­elty proves scarier than any spec­tre.

Ex­pect a ghost story and you’ll be dis­ap­pointed, but read Mel­moth with an open mind and you’ll dis­cover a haunt­ing book that speaks to mankind’s worst atroc­i­ties in the here and now.

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