CALLING OUT CRUELTY
MELMOTH, BY SARAH PERRY, IS A HAUNTING BOOK THAT DWELLS ON MANKIND’S WORST ATROCITIES
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.