This book will tell you about man’s worst atroc­i­ties

The Sunday Guardian - - Bookbeat - 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-cen­tu­ryGothic 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, oth­er­wise known as Melmo- tte or Mel­motka, “cursed to wan­der the earth with­out home or respite... al­ways watch­ing, al­ways seek­ing out ev­ery­thing that’s most dis­tress­ing and most wicked, in a world which is sur­pass­ingly wicked, and full of dis­tress.” 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 20th­cen­tury. Fol­low­ing so many dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive threads cer­tainly takes con­cen­tra­tion, but Perry thor­oughly in­hab­its each, some­times al­most to their detri­ment— I found my­self long­ing to linger in cer­tain set­tings for longer than the pages al­lowed.

The only con­stant is pain and tor­ment; and where these are found, so too Melmoth dwells— of­ten noth­ing more than a dark pres­ence glimpsed out of the cor­ner of some­one’s eye, her black robes shim­mer­ing and shift­ing shape, bloody foot­prints mark­ing the ground be­neath her. The deep melan­choly of Melmoth makes for a jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion with the lively ex­u­ber­ance of The Es­sex Ser­pent, but as Perry has ex­plained else­where, it’s a book that was writ­ten, at least in part, while she her­self was in ex­cru­ci­at­ing phys­i­cal pain. This ex­plains how deeply she’s scored the depths of hu­man suf­fer­ing on these pages “I dis­cov­ered then that pain could oblit­er­ate ev­ery­thing that made me hu­man and re­duce me to some­thing lower than an an­i­mal,” de­clares one char­ac­ter. “I would have done any­thing to es­cape it.”

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. As He­len’s friend Karel Prazan de­clares: “And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen—bear wit­ness to what must not be for­got­ten.” THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

In Perry’s ver­sion of the story, she turns the tit­u­lar fig­ure into a woman: Melmoth the Wit­ness, oth­er­wise known as Mel­motte or Mel­motka, “cursed to wan­der the earth with­out home or respite... al­ways watch­ing, al­ways seek­ing out ev­ery­thing that’s most dis­tress­ing and most wicked.”

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