Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99)
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