Mel­moth

Sarah Perry (Ser­pent’s Tail, £16.99)

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

The im­mor­tal Os­car Wilde ex­ceeded even him­self when he chose the pseu­do­nym mel­moth. Dis­graced, ex­iled and dy­ing, he took the name from his great un­cle’s most fa­mous novel, Mel­moth the Wan­derer of 1820. The rev Charles ma­turin’s tale of a soul con­demned to live for­ever re­mains an ex­em­plar of Gothic ro­man­ti­cism, a genre char­ac­terised as much by its ca­pac­ity for rein­ven­tion as by its sen­sa­tional pal­ette of ter­ror and ro­mance.

Sarah Perry’s haunt­ing novel is its di­rect de­scen­dant and, like­wise, des­tined for dis­tinc­tion.

Mel­moth be­gins and ends in mod­ern Prague, where he­len Franklin, forty­ish, for­get­table and in flight from neb­u­lous demons, works as a trans­la­tor to sup­port her pen­i­ten­tial ex­is­tence. Given an old man­u­script, dated 2016, but writ­ten in cop­per­plate Ger­man and rem­i­nis­cent of ‘a palimpsest pulled from mu­seum ar­chives’, she’s struck by the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect it has wrought on her friend Karel: ‘Noth­ing less than the change from mor­tal­ity to im­mor­tal­ity… the days he’s not yet lived, like a wa­ter­mark on empty sheets of pa­per.’

Cue a quest for ex­pi­a­tion, per­sonal and uni­ver­sal, from a tan­gle of moral fail­ure and ex­is­ten­tial hor­ror. en­ter mel­moth, ‘de­spair and lone­li­ness made in­car­nate’.

Be warned! he­len may re­sem­ble the ideal Gothic hero­ine, but mel­moth could well be the best/worst ver­sion yet of the quin­tes­sen­tial mar­tyred fiend, lur­ing the reader into a nest of sto­ries to in­ter­ro­gate that ‘mo­ment be­tween re­al­i­ties’ when one is faced with moral choice. Ques­tion­ing whether ‘when God per­mit­ted us to fall… he knew we’d fall so far,’ mel­moth de­mands we ‘bear wit­ness to what must not be for­got­ten’.

De­liv­ered with per­fect ca­dence, it dis­turbs, thrills and mes­merises in equal mea­sure. Wilde said that books are nei­ther moral nor im­moral, only bad or good; this one, how­ever, is spec­tac­u­lar. Caro­line Jack­son

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