By Sarah Perry, Serpent’s Tail, £16.99
Gothic and full of uneasiness, Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent, combines many stories in the form of letters, manuscripts, diary entries and testimonies.
They take in myth, legend and children’s fairy tale: you’re transported to wartime Czechoslovakia, sweltering Manila in the 1980s and Cairo, hot and filthy in the 1930s — all anchored by Helen, a translator whose life is deliberately small and full of self-imposed restrictions and privations.
Then a friend gives her a sheaf of papers that tells of Melmoth, a wandering woman in black, who appears at your lowest ebb to remind you of your worst and most ethically questionable moments.
The terror of Melmoth is a little hammy — and a little repetitive at times; the brightest moments come between Helen and her collection of friends, each one accidentally acquired. There’s forthright Thea; Albina, Helen’s malicious but amusing landlady; and the precise, polite Karel, who give the narrative life and body. An atmospheric tale that will have you examining your own morality, but not having too many nightmares, hopefully.