Tag Archives: Sarah Perry

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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After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

after-me-comes-the-flood

One hot summer’s day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind.

He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London.  When his car breaks down and he becomes lost on an isolated road, he goes looking for help, and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house.

Its residents welcome him with open arms – but there’s more to this strange community than meets the eye.  They all know him by name, they’ve prepared a room for him, and claim to have been waiting for him all along.

As nights and days pass John finds himself drawn into a baffling menagerie.  There is Hester, their matriarchal, controlling host; Alex and Claire, siblings full of child-like wonder and delusions; the mercurial Eve; Elijah – a faithless former preacher haunted by the Bible; and chain-smoking Walker, wreathed in smoke and hostility.  Who are these people?  And what do they intend for John?

I prefer to write my own synopsis as part of my reviews, but I’ve used the blurb from the book here, as I think it sounds fascinating.  A strange community who are waiting for a man who has never met them before?  Colour me intrigued.  And yet, this element of the mystery is solved relatively early on in the novel and, to me, was a little anticlimactic.  I think that this is completely my own fault, as I expected something quite different, but I did find the answer to be a little disappointing.

That said, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in this novel, so it might be that my interpretation of events is too literal.  For instance, it’s not at all clear in what time period it’s set.  There are cars and telephones (although no mention of mobiles that I picked up on) so this does limit how early it could be.  But the drought and the heatwave could indicate a near-future in which global warming and climate change have become more noticeable.  I chose to interpret it as current day, but that was a choice, and there were points at which I questioned this decision.

I was also struck by the distinct lack of other people in the novel.   There is John and the small commune, but hardly anyone else.  This did lead me to a couple of theories which I’m not sure that I should comment on in this review.  However, there are a couple of other individuals later in the novel, which put paid to my theories.  Even so, I don’t want to give others pre-conceived ideas about the novel, so I’ll say no more on this, but if you have read After Me Comes the Flood, please let me know – I’d love the chance to talk about this and compare ideas!

I do think that I would have got a little more from this novel had I have understood more of the biblical references.  Such things often pass me by, and whilst some were obvious, I do feel that I was missing the bigger picture or the underlying message that Perry was trying to make.  That’s not to put anyone off – I don’t think you have to be an expert in such matters to understand these references, it’s just that I’ve had very little exposure to such things, and am therefore largely ignorant in this regard.

Perry’s writing is, of course, absolutely gorgeous – she’s an incredibly talented writer.  I loved the subtle foreshadowing throughout the novel of what was to come.  I have to admit that I did prefer The Essex Serpent, which I found to be more accessible, but I did enjoy the ethereal quality of After Me Comes the Flood.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Rating: ★★★★☆

A strange beast stalks the Blackwater Estuary.  Rumoured to be some kind of winged serpent, there have been strange disappearances, and people no longer allow their children to roam as freely as they once did.  The villagers of Aldwinter are on tenterhooks, terrified of being the next to cross its path.

Into this environment strays the newly widowed Cora.  Tall and stout, she is striking rather than beautiful, with a strong mind and even stronger constitution; more comfortable in men’s boots and jackets than she is in skirts and silks.  Everyone who meets her falls for her unintentional charm, none less so than the vicar and his family.  Cora – a naturalist – is determined to discover the truth behind the serpent, and believes (hopes) that it may be a ‘living fossil’, and sees this as her opportunity to become immortalised through a plaque in the British Museum for discovering it.

Throughout the novel, I was struck by the juxtaposition of faith and science.  The Essex Serpent is set in the 1890s – a time when new discoveries and developments were being made in all aspects of science and medicine.  Darwin’s work on evolution is beginning to pass muster, and Cora herself is a naturalist, and not at all devout.  This is directly contrasted with the mythical, mystical existence of the serpent, which many of the inhabitants of Aldwinter believe to be a punishment sent by God for some transgression or other.

This contrast is further enhanced by the competition between Dr Luke Garrett and Will Ransome, who are both fond of Cora.  Garrett is an exceptional doctor, pushing the boundaries of medical science through both skill and a certain willingness to take risks.  When a strange vision grips some of the children of Aldwinter, he is quick to diagnose it as ergotism when many consider it to be further evidence of the mystical goings-on.

Will Ransome, on the other hand, is vicar to the village of Aldwinter, although he doesn’t come across as being a stereotypical man of the cloth.  Deeply intelligent, with a rugged charm, he seems equally at home discussing farming and nature as he does matters of the spirit.  He seems comfortable with his chosen path, although it’s clear that many think that he could have amounted to so much more than a vicar in a small Essex village.  He is, a little surprisingly, very much in favour of a natural (rather than spiritual) explanation for the beast, although he welcomes the improved attendance at his Sunday services, caused by the rumours of the beast and the belief that they need to atone for something.

I loved the strong female characters in the novel, particularly given that we’re often led to believe that women of the time were meek and dominated by the men in their lives.  And it’s not just Cora.  Martha, who was initially hired as Cora’s maid, but has since become more of a friend, is a strong-minded socialist, and is determined to see better living conditions for those who are living in squalor and paying rents significantly over the odds for the privilege.  Even Stella – Will’s wife – who is physically small and waif-like, has a strong will and demands equal rights to her male counterparts.

Because of these strong characters, I found the tone to be at times a little tongue in cheek, particularly in instances such as the description of Cora that is sent to Will Ransome by way of introduction from a mutual (male) acquaintance of theirs:

I think of her as having an exceptional – really I might even say masculine! – intelligence

It made me wonder whether the view that we have of women at the time – that they are

forever succumbing to fits of vapours

as Perry so aptly puts it – is because so much of what was written at the time came from men with views such as the one above.

The Essex Serpent is an incredibly detailed novel, and for this reason I did find it a little slow to start.  I was soon completely enthralled, however, and desperate to know the outcome – not just the explanation behind the serpent, but also to understand the outcome for each of the characters involved.  I’m going to make an early call and say that this will appear on this year’s Man Booker Prize long list.

The Essex Serpent will be published in the UK on 16 June 2016.  Many thanks to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for sending a copy for review.