I’m always attracted to ghost stories in the winter so Melmoth by Sarah Perry was one of my first choices for January. I’d heard glimmers of mixed reviews on Bookstagram but I decided not to read them, preferring to be led by the haunting premise alone:
For centuries, the mysterious dark-robed figure has roamed the globe, searching for those whose complicity and cowardice have fed into the rapids of history’s darkest waters—and now, in Sarah Perry’s breathtaking follow-up to The Essex Serpent, it is heading in our direction.
It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.
But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .
This supernatural concoction really appealed, but did the novel match the promise? If I was to give it a percentage then I’d say it hit 75% – a clear four star, but no more, which is a shame because I am totally in love with Sarah Perry’s writing. It’s intricate and crisp, finely layered with keen observation. It’s rare for me to remember scenes after reading most books, but I can picture hers easily. They’re painted with the dedication of a miniaturist. And she’s equally skilled at building complex characters who loiter just on the side of likeable. No one gets away with perfection. This portrait of Karel gives an impression of her descriptive style:
“He is tall, and carefully thin; his shirts are silk, his shoes suede or calfskin, according to the season; he is not handsome, but gives the illusion of it, and seems to have only just shaved.”
So with crafted words, substantial characters and a sinister theme, where did Melmoth lose its shine? In some ways, I almost don’t want to highlight the weaknesses in this book because its strengths outweighed the downsides, but I don’t think Perry has quite achieved the perfect structure yet. The story was too flimsy in The Essex Serpent (her previous novel) and in Melmoth, the patterning was too dense. There are multiple sub-tales, characters, secondary texts – some of which detracted from the haunting tension that she builds up in the opening pages. I also felt that the figure of Melmoth slipped into caricature at times. Less is more in the most effective ‘ghost’ stories and we saw a bit too much of this mournful phantom.
The story is complex thematically. Melmoth, the mythical wanderer, bears witness to sins so there are some very dark moments in the novel as well as redemption. Again, I wasn’t entirely sure if the central message crystallised completely, but I ended the story in tears which surprised me. It seems that Perry affected me on a deeper level than I realised.
Would I recommend Melmoth? For those who like gothic literary fiction – absolutely. It has imperfections, but it also instances of genius. I love the way Sarah Perry combines magical realism and faith with a touch of tempered insanity. My bet is that she’ll become one of our best novelists within the next ten years.
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