Perfect for dark winter nights, Melmoth is a Gothic tale set in the snow-covered city of Prague. Brooding and atmospheric, it’s a story of shameful pasts and secret guilt. The linking thread is Melmoth; a woman cursed to wander the world, bearing witness to human cruelty.
I’ve read a few reviews that compare Melmoth negatively to Sarah Perry’s previous book, The Essex Serpent. Of the two, I found Melmoth more interesting. Both are beautifully written but Melmoth has more action and its interlinking stories caught my attention. The main narrative is set in the present but interspersed with historical events. The language is stunning and so rich that finishing this novel feels like eating an entire cake in one sitting.
The story begins with Helen Franklin, a British translator living a life of penitence in Prague. She avoids luxuries such as music and alcohol, apparently atoning for a hidden event in her past. Her only friends are a local couple; a Czech academic and a British former barrister.
Who is Melmoth?
When Karel, the academic, inherits a document from an elderly scholar, he learns of Melmoth, a legendary woman who witnessed but denied Jesus’ resurrection. As a result, she’s forced to wander the world with bleeding feet, seeking out the guilty. Inspired by this story, Karel starts uncovering historical accounts of people who claim to have met Melmoth. Eventually he becomes convinced he’s being followed by the mythical figure. When Helen reads his research she realises someone is also stalking her as she travels around the city.
I felt the historical records found by Karel initially stood out more than Helen’s story. A deliberately colourless character due to her twenty-year penance, she’s cleverly drawn but difficult to relate to. She didn’t really interest me until we began to learn more about her backstory. Her friend Thea (the ex-barrister) and elderly landlady Albína Horáková are more vibrant and act as a balance.
Those watched by Melmoth have to decide whether they will live with their guilt or join her endless journey. Their confessions are well written but disturbing; once or twice I nearly put the book down. We’re shown conformity and petty betrayals with long reaching consequences, from the impact of a German boy’s jealousy in Nazi-occupied Prague to a Turkish civil servant whose paper-pushing fuels the massacre of Armenians.
Guilt and the need to bear witness are ongoing themes – readers become spectators watching a parade of past and present characters confessing wrongdoing. Like Melmoth we see atrocities from around the world. Helen and Karel both choose to read documents detailing old revelations. In the modern day, a group of women that includes Helen also become each other’s witnesses when they reveal their shady secrets and past misdeeds.
I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the Melmoth myth, so before picking up the book I set out to learn more. Apparently, Sarah Perry based her story on a nineteenth century Gothic novel by an eccentric, Protestant clergyman called Charles Maturin. The original book features a male Melmoth, who sells his soul to the devil in return for a longer life. He ends up wandering the world, looking for someone to take over his pact. The novel sounds chilling and is now firmly on my list of books to be read!
Verdict: The wonderful writing in Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is enough to make this story worth reading. The subject matter is dark and uncomfortable at times, but thought provoking. This isn’t a feel-good novel and I didn’t like the characters enough to plan an immediate re-read but, who knows, on a cold, snowy night at some point in the future I may decide to pick it up again.