Melmoth is a book obsessed with morality, but littered with internal contradictionsby Josie Mitchell / December 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
Sarah Perry’s bestselling second novel The Essex Serpent was one of those books that plucked you from your seat in a couple of sentences and deposited you somewhere damp, Gothic and rather magical. Perry’s new novel, Melmoth, is another Gothic romp, but one more likely to perplex than enchant.
The novel takes its cue from Melmoth the Wanderer—an arcane horror story written by an Irish clergyman in 1820, in which a man, having traded his soul for a longer life, is doomed to spend it wandering the earth.
Perry’s novel recasts women in the titular roles: Helen Franklin, a translator based in Prague, comes across a mysterious folder containing a sheaf of historic letters, all describing the same black-clad female figure. Melmoth, the myth goes, denied the truth of Christ’s Resurrection, and was cursed to walk the earth until Judgment Day, bearing witness to the worst of humanity. Helen, her conscience tortured by the fearful accounts as well as an undisclosed crime of her own, loses her hard-won self-control, cringing at Melmoth’s judgmental gaze, the smell of lilies on the air.
This is, however, no blithe horror flick. In these stories within stories, Perry conjures individuals complicit in some of the worst atrocities of recent history: the burning of religious heretics, the Armenian genocide, even the Holocaust. It is a bold decision and not entirely successful. Though cliché-creepy, Melmoth’s behaviour is erratic, almost arbitrary: some people die, others laugh her away, others lose their mind. What is Perry trying to do by yoking together a fantasy witch who appears in a puff of smoke stinking of dead flowers with the atrocities of the 20th century?
Melmoth is a book obsessed with morality, but littered with internal contradictions. One could forgive this muddle in a spooky thriller, but in a book that contemplates the suffering of Czech Jews and modern-day asylum-seekers, this lack of control feels inappropriate.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99)