Melmoth by Sarah Perry

melmoth

Melmoth is a novel that I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about its publication, having enjoyed The Essex Serpent and After Me Comes the Flood.

Twenty years ago, Helen Franklin did something she cannot forgive herself for, and she has spent every day since barricading herself against its memory. But her sheltered life is about to change.

A strange manuscript has come into her possession. It is filled with testimonies from the darkest chapters of human history, which all record sightings of a tall, silent woman in black, with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet: Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Condemned to walk the Earth forever, she tries to beguile the guilty and lure them away for a lifetime wandering alongside her.

Everyone that Melmoth seeks out must make a choice: to live with what they’ve done, or be led into the darkness. Helen can’t stop reading, or shake the feeling that someone is watching her. As her past finally catches up with her, she too must choose which path to take.

Exquisitely written, and gripping until the very last page, this is a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

Melmoth introduces the reader to Helen Franklin, a woman in her early forties who works as a translator in Prague.  Helen intrigued me immediately, as it is clear from the beginning of the novel that she is punishing herself for something, although what past act or misdeeds she thinks she has to atone for isn’t revealed until later in the novel.  She barely eats, drinks nothing but water, and denies herself the most basic of pleasures, sleeping on a hard, bare mattress and not even allowing herself to listen to music.  She seems determined to live in discomfort, and I was curious as to why she would choose to live her life in that way.

Helen has few friends and acquaintances in Prague.  There is her landlady (who is a terrific character), and Karel and Thea, a couple she first met in Prague.  It is Karel who first draws her attention to the tale of Melmoth – a fairytale-esque being dressed in black with bleeding feet, it is said that Melmoth wanders the Earth bearing witness to the atrocities committed by man as a punishment for her own past transgressions.  Helen is dismissive of the tale at first, and yet she is soon swept up in the story as she reads various eye-witness accounts of Melmoth from various locations and points in time.

The novel moves between the present day and the various documents that Helen finds relating to Melmoth, gradually revealing more of this legendary figure, and Helen is quickly caught up in the story, much as Karel was before her.  It seems that Melmoth has an overwhelming allure to all those who discover her, and as her role is to bear witness, Perry uses this character to explore the very human need to share the burden of guilt we may, rightly or wrongly, carry with us and the power of redemption.

Set in a modern-day Prague, Perry captures the nature of the city perfectly.  The story has a heavy Gothic atmosphere, and I found it to be wonderfully creepy with its tale of a black-clad figure who is always watching…  Recommended for those who enjoy Gothic and / or literary fiction, Melmoth is published by Serpent’s Tail, and is available to buy from all the usual places.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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11 thoughts on “Melmoth by Sarah Perry

  1. Fantastic review Jo, so excited to get to this after the Serpent nabbed a firm spot on my favourites shelf! How do you think her debut (After Me Comes The Flood) compares? I’ve heard mixed reviews and am not sure whether to pick it up or not! 🤔

  2. A beautifully written review! You really conjure up the story. I’ve just finished reviewing Melmoth so it’s great to see that I’m not the only one who found it interesting.

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