This book will tell you about man’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-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.”